The competition at the center of Underwater Dreams is literally in the center of the movie. That’s rare for a story about underdogs, as their unlikely victory tends to provide a perfect climax. But this documentary is about what happens after that success, how it’s not always easier for the truly disadvantaged to make it in the world just because they’ve proven they can.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the Carl Hayden High School robotics team won a national, college-level competition back in 2004, beating none other than MIT in the assignment of building a machine to perform tasks underwater. The film, directed by Mary Mazio and executive produced and narrated by actor Michael Pena, doesn’t go for suspense on that side of the story, even if it does take forty-five minutes to confirm what it’s been hinting at all along.
Like most underdog movies, predictability is moot because the point is to make us like the ragtag group of longshots enough that the expected outcome is still an enjoyable moment. Underwater Dreams achieves that appeal easily because the four guys who comprised that team were and are a bunch of charming nerds, and they love telling their story. Their smiles are contagious.
Also unique to that first half is the portrayal of the MIT group. Even most documentaries make the primary rivals in a competition film out to be villains for the purpose of the narrative. While Mazio doesn’t give those students backstories or otherwise turn us onto them as much as the Carl Hayden crew, she does give them a good amount of screen time to present them as equally humble kids just trying to make a working robot.
It’s helpful to get to know them a little bit because of how they fit into the second half of the story, too. The two teams are not exactly adversaries in the context of the whole picture, yet they are somewhat opponents out in the real world. Late in the film, we hear about what the MIT alum do now, and they’re far and away the more prosperous.
Part of that is because the champs are from a poor part of Arizona, and they’re undocumented immigrants, all having arrived in the U.S. as young children. That status makes them a whole other sort of underdog, and in the past decade, their obstacles have increased, particularly in their home state, where Proposition 300 made them ineligible for Arizona-funded financial aid and scholarships and in-state tuition.
We follow the stories of the four in the ten years since their historical win, learning that they have made some remarkable accomplishments considering the hurdles and lack of opportunities. Some of them have also joined the political fight for legislation like the DREAM Act and programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In the end, this second level of their underdog tale is an ongoing battle.
Mazio does an excellent job highlighting the issue as it relates to the potential of individuals like the members of the Carl Hayden robotics team, and the film makes a strong case for why changes must be made for undocumented youth in the United States. Underwater Dreams is a slam dunk in the big game, yet it’s still just a couple of points towards a hopeful win.
Underwater Dreams opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles. Free community screenings will be held at AMC theaters nationwide on July 19th.