Underwater Dreams Is Full of Local Ties But Lacks Plot
Filmmaker Mary Mazzio's Underwater Dreams is timely, because it deals (perhaps too tangentially) with immigration reform. And the movie, which recently played for a week on various cable networks and now has opened nationwide in commercial theaters, is pleasant to watch for locals because it's set here in Phoenix, specifically at Carl Hayden High School. (At the screening I attended, there was a certain amount of "Hey, I know that guy!" going on in the audience.) But while Dreams is slickly made and its people likable, its pacing and structure nearly bury its greater points about class distinction, and underdogs making good, and the raw deal we give to "illegal" immigrants.
Written and directed by Mazzio, a documentarian known for underdog stories, Underwater Dreams recalls how a group of Carl Hayden students entered a sophisticated underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA in 2004. Competing against colleges, including engineering leader MIT, the four high schoolers took top honors with a robot made from PVC pipe and duct tape. The victory changed the boys' ideas of who gets to succeed in life, and how, and they returned to Phoenix empowered and determined to succeed. Instead, they ended up, for the most part, dropping out of college and taking workday jobs after high school to help support their families.
Why? Because Carl Hayden is a Title One school in a crummy part of town, where most of its students live in poverty and many — like the kids we meet in this uneven story of their lives — are the children of undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Because Mazzio chooses to reveal these facts late in the film, their impact on this otherwise touching story is nearly lost. We know going in that the little guys are going to triumph over the smart, rich college kids, but it's a lesser victory because we learn so late that these kids are disadvantaged in ways that matter, but shouldn't.
If the movie turns too late from a generic story about underdogs into a larger commentary about the way we deny rights to undocumented immigrants, it's not without its charms. The students, now in their 20s and still hopeful about improving their futures, are easy to like. And the section where Mazzio contrasts the lives of the MIT students, who now have titled positions in upscale engineering firms (one of them helped invent Apple's new line of earbuds), with the lives of the Carl Hayden kids (some of whom work as janitors and caterers) is subtly emotional.
But I would like to have seen more made about the impact Fredi Lajvardi, a 1970s science nerd from Camelback High School and himself a documented Iranian immigrant, had on the lives of his students by creating the robotics team in the first place. A little more about how the kids created "Stinky," the robot they named after the smell of PVC glue, might have made the story of the robotics contest more compelling, and a firmer line drawn from how the students' victory led to their involvement in immigration reform and passage of the Dream Act would have helped.
Which isn't to say that Underwater Dreams is unworthy. Viewers may have to go looking for Mazzio's larger points — life is unfair; brown people are badly treated; poor kids are smart, too — but those points eventually get made, and are worth being reminded of.
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