In his book On Directing Film, David Mamet sings the virtues of the Kiss method, which he explains stands for “keep it simple, stupid.”
Stressing that the most natural and straightforward approach you can use to convey whatever it is you’re trying to say trumps overcomplicating matters every time, Mamet takes Kiss to heart as one of the most important rules he follows whether he’s crafting a script on the page or bringing it to life on the screen.
And even though he was referring to film, Mamet’s philosophy can extend to any number of fields. How many times have we struggled to do things the hard way only to realize that instead of taxing our brain, the best and most practical solution was the simplest one all along?
In a way, it’s similar to any number of adages that we’ve heard (regardless of culture or background), including that old test-taking theory to always trust your gut rather than second guess yourself into an error.
And in documentary filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s uplifting underwater underdog story Underwater Dreams, she chronicles the role that real world problem solving can play in making people without the access to “out of the box” supplies use “inside of the box” tools in completely unexpected ways.
Recounting the stunning victory of students at Arizona’s Carl Hayden Community High School who beat out the legendarily complicated thinkers at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities via Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a 2004 underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Research, Mazzio celebrates the differences that translated to strengths which set them apart.
In a series of highly entertaining interviews, we discover that it’s this elegantly simple thought process – the result of necessity regarding their limited resources and the strength of their background as students that have to think on their feet multiple times a day to make lightning fast yet effective decisions – that helped give the underdog team the edge of unparalleled success.
Using PVC pipe in primary colors purchased on a budget at Home Depot and a whole lot of pungent pipe glue that – when mixed with the Phoenix sunshine and a small enclosed space – inspired the four boys on the team to call their robot that could “Stinky,” the group managed to do the unthinkable.
A school where 92% of students live below the poverty line and most have memories of crossing the border with parents in search of a better life and a brighter future, the students who joined the (then) fledgling robotics club were cheered on the whole way by two dedicated teachers.
In doing so, they managed to achieve dreams most in the area (including some parents with mere grade school educations) never thought possible. And this is doubly impressive when you consider that in addition to not having access to a body of water in their desert location, they built Stinky on an estimated $800 budget vs. the Exxon and big name sponsored state-of-the-art vehicle produced by MIT.
Recounting the incredible journey from the inception of the club all the way up through present day to follow the path taken by the students who won the competition that their ambitious teacher advisers entered simply on a whim for the experience, Mazzio has created a passionate, gripping and at times heartbreaking tale of highs and lows.
Intriguingly contrasting the path taken by the talented students at MIT in her chatty interview-heavy feature, Mazzio’s real thesis is soon revealed in the final act while the socioeconomic differences and the opportunities for the bright Carl Hayden students are cut short after a proposition passed in Arizona to cut off funding to illegal immigrants seeking higher education.
Impressively keeping her focus even when Underwater veers away from the narrative of the competition to channel the difference a decade can make, Mazzio works in humanistic advocacy while always steering it back to the students of the school as opposed to taking the film in an overly political direction.
With the burgeoning marine biology department and underwater robotics team now flourishing with a new generation of gifted thinkers who dream of futures in a wide variety of scientific fields, we’re also shown the flipside to that reality thanks to an increasingly hostile and reactionary political climate that’s incongruous to the academic growth and goals of Carl Hayden’s best and brightest.
A timely documentary, while Mazzio’s movie is especially topical in my adopted state of Arizona, it’s likewise important throughout the country given the rare access viewers have to these socioeconomic, sociopolitical narratives that might encourage advocacy, involvement, more teachers, and social change in other regions.
While Dreams begins with a simple hook to reel us in, it definitely stimulates thought on a deeper level by the end.
A great companion to other similarly themed next-generation competition and education-centric documentaries including Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound, Underwater is a cautiously optimistic portrait sure to inspire and influence as well as grow into a greater word-of-mouth hit as more people track it down.
A moving work with so much to say in its succinct running time and one where the film’s memorable voices (including the words spoken by its narrator Michael Pena) will linger long after it’s over, Dreams is an example of Mamet’s Kiss done right.
What it lacks in flashy edits and big budget production specs, it more than makes up for in its celebratory chronicle of an underdog team who dared to dream and had the courage not to let anyone or anything stand in their way of their right to try and make it come true from students to MIT to an unorthodox use of tampons that might have saved the day.
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