Mary Mazzio’s new documentary Underwater Dreams is the kind of story that seem as though it was written for the screen. At its center is the inspiring story of a robotics club from a poor Arizona high school, but that’s merely the core around which revolve the film’s larger ideas about America, education, and immigration. In many ways, Underwater Dreams can be considered a political film, as it certainly tackles some difficult issues; however, they are issues that are so organic to the story that the film achieves something rare in becoming a political documentary that’s also a captivating and emotional narrative.
In 2004, four teenagers from Carl Hayden High School in Arizona entered a college-level underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA. Their robot, an $800 contraption pieced together from PVC pipe, duct tape, and over-the-counter electronics, would be going up against some of the best robotics programs in the country, including the powerful and well-funded MIT team. Lead by two passionate science teachers, the team of undocumented Mexican immigrants banded together to do the impossible.
It’s a true David and Goliath story, but that’s not where the film ends. Mazzio focuses an equal amount of attention on the competition’s aftermath, both on the boys themselves and on Carl Hagen High School. It’s here that politics begin to take the front seat, as Proposition 300 eliminates the financial aid that one of the boys was using to attend college, and another’s path to legal citizenship sees him briefly banned from the United States and his family. The film also spends some time discussing the Dream Act Coalition, an immigrant education rights group that counts among its founders a number of Carl Hayden Robotics alumni. The robotics team turns out to be a fantastic lens through which to view these difficult issues. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite make the leap without losing focus.
Running a relatively brisk 86 minutes, Underwater Dreams loses momentum in its third act. Without the focused subject of the robotics competition to tether the film’s broader ideas to a central point, the story begins to break apart into pieces. The film covers the legacy of the robotics team at Carl Hayden and the lives of the team members in the decade following the competition, while discussing illegal immigration, deportation, and education in more general ways as well. It’s all interesting material, but doesn’t cut together into a compelling or cohesive narrative the way the competition does. These asides feel disjointed, especially after the incredibly tight first hour.
Underwater Dreams is very much a victory of substance over style. Whereas the film’s story is wholly engaging, Mazzio’s attempts to bottle its energy are underwhelming. There’s little consistency in the film’s form, and it never finds an equilibrium between recreations, archival footage, and talking heads. The film is narrated by Michael Peña, but his voiceovers are infrequent and emotionally flat. Mazzio primarily lets the story unfold through the mouths of those who lived it. It’s ultimately a successful decision, but leaves one wondering why Peña’s narration is there at all. There’s never a true sense of vision behind the camera, and instead of enhancing the incredible story, the film merely relays it.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Underwater Dreams has what every documentary dreams of: a captivating story with real social and political implications. Immigration is a hot button issue, and it’s great to see a film that tackles the issues while following a truly inspiring narrative. But while the subject matter is certainly extraordinary, the film itself is decidedly average. It never quite strikes the balance between its core story and its political ambitions and it has difficulty wrangling all its elements into one cohesive package.