Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Underdogs of the century! Mary Mazzio's UNDER-WATER DREAMS tracks an unusual competition

If ever a movie suffered from a split personality, it's this one. Fortunately, rather than possessing any Jekyll & Hyde kind of thing, UNDERWATER DREAMS , a new documentary by Mary Mazzio (shown below) is definitely more Jekyll & Jekyll, as both sides of the coin -- a underwater robotics competition that took place back in 2004 and a tale of immigrant rights that has unfurled in Arizona since then -- are benign, important and very much worth knowing about. Maybe just not in the same documentary.

As  you're watching this enjoyable and sometimes surprising movie, you'll be aware, around the midway point, that the climax has been reached and you're suddenly into a rather long denouement. That's because the story of the unusual team of robotic students from Carl Hayden Community High School (from here on known as CHCHS) in the Phoenix, Arizona, area -- where 92 % of the students live below the poverty line and and 90% of them are Hispanic -- is also about the fact that a number of them and their families are also undocumented. This lends everything an even dicier cast. One of this quartet of student's teachers -- Fredi Lajvardi -- has encouraged his group to take part in the underwater robotics competition in Santa Barbara, California, while simultaneously trying to lower their expectations somewhat. Lajvardi hopes that the team might possibly beat out one or two other high schools, if it's lucky.

We get to know these four kids and their teacher (above) and some other teachers and counselors, as well as the kids from the major university against which they are competing (and whose members often win the competition): MIT. Yes, that MIT. We actually come to like both teams: The MIT kids -- shown below with the CHCHS team -- do not seem the entitled snobs one might imagine, while the Arizona kids -- and their robot they name Stinky -- grow and blossom before our eyes. I think we'd be fortunate indeed to be able to call any one of them our friend. "These kids' biggest obstacles are low and/or wrong expectations," one of their counselors explains, and we can also understand this.

How the actual competition plays out involves to a large degree simplicity versus complexity, and while the CHCHS kids' robot is indeed pretty simple, each team member truly and deeply seems to understand Stinky (below) and how he works. This pays off. As I noted above, the actual climax occurs around the midway point, and from then on the documentary toys with other things: a ten-year reunion of the CHCHS and MIT teams, a piece on where-are-they-now, and then a whole section involving our country's ever-changing immigration laws and a protest by the students that attempts to change these laws.

All this is way too scattershot and organized rather badly, seeming more like an attempt to make Underwater Dreams a full-length piece, rather than a shorter, better and stronger version that stuck with the competition and its aftermath and ran maybe an hour in length. The immigration theme is equally important, but another entirely separate documentary could have been devoted to this, too.

Still, I wouldn't have wanted to miss learning about what these students did and how they did it. Their work is genuinely inspiring. What we're seeing here seems like the result of good teaching and true learning. As one of the advisers at the competition states: "These boys fundamentally understood what they had built!" For all its faults, the documentary is the best thing I've seen to come out of Arizona (a state usually full of anger, inequality, prejudice and the Gabby Giffords assassination attempt) in a very long time. I hope the entire population of the state gets the chance to sit through this film -- and hold a discussion afterward.

Underwater Dreams -- running 86 minutes -- opens July 11 in New York City (at the AMC Empire 25: Showtimes 10am, 12:20pm, 2:40pm, 5pm, 7:20pm, and 9:40pm) and in Los Angeles (AMC Burbank Town Center 6: Showtimes 12:45pm, 3pm, 5:15pm, 7:30pm, 9:45pm, with additional morning shows at 10:30am Fri-Sun.)

Beginning July 19, AMC Theatres will host, free of charge, up to 100 community screenings across the U.S. to enable school and non-profit groups to enjoy the film on the big screen this summer and fall.
If you represent a community group, non-profit, or school and can gather at least 100 people for a screening, please click the AMC logo below to request a screening. All requests must be submitted by October 1, 2014 and all screenings must happen by October 15, 2014. This offer is limited to the first 100 qualified requests that arrive by deadline. (Shown above is Michael Peña, who narrates the film.)

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