Mary Mazzio’s brief but touching pic about five Latin high school boys from an impoverished, landlocked town in Arizona who enter a NASA/Navy sponsored underwater robotics competition, taking on titans like MIT with Exxon sponsorship behind them, percolates with keen social insight that otherwise might have gotten lost in a rote, can-do underdog story. The two high school teachers who sought the opportunity decided to compete on the collegiate level because the disappointment of finishing far back would be mollified by the daunting impressiveness of the field. Had this been a Hollywood “based on” adaptation or a Hallmark fantasy, the Davey vs. Goliath drama would seem trumped up, maudlin and implausible, but as a straight-up documentary with talking heads from both sides of the engineering contest (the Arizona five and the vast MIT squad), it’s head-on, unadulterated and far more affecting than anything that could have been hatched in a studio lab.
It’s no spoiler, too, that the fab five from Arizona win. That realization comes midway through the film, and Mazzio is wise to not linger on it too long. Up to that point, the talking head back-and-forth doesn’t yield much grit or ordeal, just nostalgia, but ultimately it bears fruits as it delves into the technical complications the students faced (on their limited budget they could only afford PVC piping at Home Depot to fashion their submersible and after an early setback in the competition, employed tampons to help keep the electrical boards moisture free) and the socio-political challenges that confront them in the ensuing years after. That is where the heat of Underwater Dreams warms through.
The big reveal here is that all five boys are either undocumented residents of the United States or the sons of such “illegals.” The film jumps five years beyond the improbable win to check in on how the inherent future promise of that victory has played out. The two that go to college are tripped up by their lack of papers and one, who actually achieves a college degree in engineering, is denied his dream to serve in the U.S. military. Others of the posse, without regret, have taken on menial jobs and lost their tie to their technical yen. Mazzio brings it forward another five years and stages a sit-down with the group and the MIT squad, who have all gone onto greatness inventing mass-market earbuds and firing up startups. The juxtaposition is stark and telling, and as a filmmaker with a clear slant, Mazzio smartly doesn’t lean on the social commentary lever, letting events and the facets of the situation speak subtly and poetically for themselves.
Narrated stoically, but with an apt tinge of Latin pride by Michael Peña,Underwater Dreams unfurls as a cautious American fable of sorts. If Mazzio were to have added more of a sharpness to it, it would have been to collapse the opening chapter’s recursive heralding of the Herculean challenge and charge more straightly in the heart of the matter. Hoop Dreams, the great 1994 documentary by Steve James, wasn’t so much about basketball and making it in the NBA as it was about debunking the American Dream and fairness, and the cold stark reality of socio-economics. Hope buoys eternal (as it must for man to go on) while reality tethers it. Stories of temperament and perseverance against stacked odds, engage and transport. Mazzio has put her finger on one such story; the hope here is that it is not done.
Published in Paste Magazine