The opening moments of More Than Robots rattle with a palpable anxious energy. We are thrust into a convention center for the semi-final round of the FIRST robotics competition: Members of each team circle their inventions, the crowd roars with excitement from the stands flanking the walls.

The robots — the stars of the show — hang out in the center of the room. We, the viewers, spy on members drilling and replacing parts, triple checking their program codes, high-fiving each other and offering encouraging reminders. A countdown starts. At the word “Go,” the screen goes black and the title card appears.

So begins Gillian Jacobs’ tense and tender debut documentary about the 2020 FIRST robotics competition season. FIRST, which was founded by Segway and insulin pump inventor Dean Kamen, is a rigorous international program that tasks high school students with building and programing a robot.

The rules are simple, the field level: Each team gets a package with the same materials, has six weeks to construct the bot, brainstorm a team name and mascot and raise money for a community organization. It’s a tall, multi-pronged order — but it’s also fun.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Buoyed by its inspiring subjects.

Release date: March 18 (Disney+)
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Gillian Jacobs

1 hour 29 minutes

Four high-school students — Jacob, Aaron, Mariana and Kanon — guide us through their teams’ journeys to construct and program a competitive robot. The weeks-long, high-stakes endeavor is an exercise in working together and building self-esteem.

‘More Than Robots’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

Jacobs, known for her acting on Community, Judd Apatow’s series Love and, recently, Netflix’s Fear Street, keenly frames this story as an inspiring tale of teamwork and what happens when kids are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild.

This is Jacobs’ directorial debut, and she demonstrates an awareness of and fierce protection over her subjects and their narratives — qualities that translate into animated and warm interviews. “The way my brain works, I can’t think in words. I think in feelings and numbers,” Jacob, the first participant we get to know, says at the start of the film. Joining the FIRST team  — The Vitruvians — at his Los Angeles school gave Jacob, who found his classmates’ singular interest in pop culture alienating, a chance to make friends.

Aaron, who lives in a different part of Los Angeles, stumbled upon robotics. “Some people are afraid of change,” he says in his introduction. “But you don’t know what you like or what your passion is until you try new things.” Aaron’s new thing became building robots, and joining the TeraWatts (his school’s team) helped him nurture that obsession.

The two other subjects — Mariana and Kanon — live in Mexico City and Chiba, Japan, respectively. Before joining her school’s robotics team, the Nautilus, Mariana was deeply shy, but competing for FIRST’s Chairman Award (given to the team that demonstrates the greatest service to their community) eased her out of introversion. Kanon founded her FIRST team, the Sakura Tempestas, in Japan after a brief educational stint in Minneapolis. There, she participated in a robotics club that expanded her sense of who could be an engineer.

Jacobs gives the students ample space to consider their answers and crack jokes. These opportunities to express themselves loosen up the interviews, making them feel less rigid. Conversations with the students’ families, friends and mentors supplement their stories and reinforce the positive way robotics impacted their lives.

But More Than Robots’ honeyed narrative is troubled by a tension between Jacobs’ interest in her subjects’ individual experiences and the doc’s broader obligations to advertising FIRST. Disney (whose streaming platform will host the documentary, premiering on March 18) has funded FIRST for decades. Lucasfilms, an executive producer, partnered with the program in their 2020 season.

The meritorious program comes most alive through participant stories and footage of the teams scrambling to build and test their robots. When the students let us into their process — explaining specific mechanisms or expressing their hopes and frustrations — a clear portrait of the program emerges.

Yet stylistic flourishes like jagged sound editing and sonorous musical composition coupled with repetitive clips of interviews with Kamen end up corporatizing parts of More Than Robots. The effect can be distancing.

More Than Robots eventually recovers, gaining momentum toward the end. After working hard for weeks, the robotics teams find themselves faced with an unprecedented challenge in the form of COVID-19. With finals cancelled and teammates isolated at home, these industrious and imaginative students find ways to support each other and their communities. Using what they learned through FIRST, they create PPE for frontline workers, construct ventilators and build robots to deliver groceries to the elderly.

The end of More Than Robots is both an inspiration and an indictment. As we navigate another year of the pandemic, most government officials have abdicated their responsibilities to their people. Watching these kids use their comparatively meager means to help one another, and listening to them speak about interdependence, really puts those leaders’ selfishness into perspective.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Distributor: Disney+
Production companies: Supper Club, Lucasfilm
Director: Gillian Jacobs
Producer: David Gelb, Brian McGinn, Jason Sterman
Executive producers: Christine Beebe, Michael A. Garcia
Cinematographer: Jerry Henry
Editor: Jared Martin
Composers: Alexandra Petkovski, Bryan Winslow