The story first broke in 2004 in an article from Wired magazine by Joshua Davis. The article talks about Carl Hayden Community High School and how these four kids came together in unlikely circumstances and took on a project none of them were familiar with: building an underwater robot with the help of a substitute teacher. Even though they were faced with many obstacles, the group of students beat out MIT at the California-based competition. The article had all the makings of an inspirational feel-good Hollywood movie, which is what it eventually became.
George Lopez produced the film, but he also plays Fredi Cameron, who has a PhD in engineering but has been out of that field because of a tragic accident in which his daughter passed away. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the principal of Carl Hayden and gives Cameron a chance as a substitute teacher. It is there we meet Marisa Tomei’s character Gwen, who really cares for the students and looks out for them. Gwen questions Cameron’s dependence on the children once the project is underway, and problems start to arise.
We also see Carlos PenaVega in a different role than we’re use to seeing him in. He plays Oscar, a ROTC student who is turned away from the US Army for being undocumented. Oscar then is determined to enter the NASA-sponsored underwater robotics contest. Cristian, who is played by David del Rio, is a computer and math geek and joins the team with Oscar. Lorenzo, played by Jose Julian (who we last saw in A Better Life), is a mechanical genius and joins the team to avoid being suspended from school. Luis, played by Oscar Gutierrez, is seen as the slow silent one, which creates the opportunity for the other student to explain to him and the audience the science behind building the robot.
The students are only able to fundraise $800 for their robot, in comparison to other robots at the competition which were spent over $18,000 on. The students at Carl Hayden build their robot out of pool noodles, tape measures, and even tampons to keep the inside of their robot leak free.
Not everything is smooth sailing during the building of the robot. More than one of the students has to face the reality of being deported. Oscar and Lorenzo’s storyline focuses on their struggles to hide from ICE agents. Mexican star Alessandra Rosaldo plays Oscar’s mom, and Carlos PenaVega’s wife, Alexa PenaVega, plays his girlfriend in the film. Esai Morales plays Lorenzo’s reprehending father. There is also a brief cameo from regional Mexican singer Gerardo Ortiz who shares the screen with Curtis.
The film ends with the students going to the competition held at the UCSB campus. They doubt their win because of something Luis said to the judging panel, but then they end up shocked at their victory. Before the credits roll, a title cards epilogue narrates what the four students are currently doing with their lives.
Oscar was able to join the military and even served in Afghanistan. He also graduated college and President Obama attended the ceremony.
The movie definitely accounts for the struggles that a lot of young people face living in the US undocumented with hopes and dreams. It inspires anyone, whether born here or elsewhere, that anything is possible. Hard work pays off.
Production companies: Travieso Prods., Circle of Confusion
Director: Sean McNamara
Screenwriter: Elisa Matsueda
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes