So I’m pinning my hopes on these kids to save the world, because frankly I don’t know what else we have. In the funny, sobering, inspiring documentary Science Fair, writer-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster (making their feature debut) introduce us to some of the most brilliant teenagers alive, high-school students from all over the world who are competing at ISEF, the International Science and Engineering Fair, in Los Angeles in 2017. It’s the World Cup of genius geekery: hundreds of qualifying science fairs across the planet feed their winners into this competition of top-shelf invention and innovation. We’re talking projects that are way beyond baking-soda volcanoes, of course: these kids are curing cancer (or preventing it in the first place), designing new kinds of airplanes, tinkering with machine learning and artificial intelligence, and other things that will blow your mind and very likely change the world. Hopefully for the better.
The teens we meet bust all clichés and caricatures of nerds: they are hilarious, self-aware, engaging. (“Science fairs are notorious for partying,” one informs us, gleefully. There is video evidence.) There are lots of girls among these young scientists; at least half, maybe more. (Yeah, but girls aren’t into science, and are no good at it anyway. *grrrr*) They are rigorous, perfectionist academics, and they are classroom slackers who would rather pursue their own interests, stuff that no curriculum ever conceived of, and, as a result, neglect schoolwork. (Okay, maybe that’s one cliché that gets some support here: supersmart kids don’t always excel on paper. One unspoken message of the film: We need to be okay with that. We need some way for our school systems to work with those kids.) Without preaching, just by showing us what these fairgoers can do and who they are, Costantini and Foster have created a wonderful celebration of intellectual striving and achievement not just for its own sake but because it’s fun.
But there’s a serious side, too, one that goes uncommented upon overtly but is unmistakeable... and infuriating. These kids come from a wide array of school situations, from ones with tremendous resources and support, and not only financially, for scientific endeavors; to those with similar abundant resources that are devoted instead only to sports, ignoring academics; to those with almost nothing to work with. One duo at ISEF hails from Brazil — their project is about curing the Zika-virus crisis — and their school is desperately poor. One ISEF entrant from a football-loving school in South Dakota can’t get any of her science teachers to supervise her work for the fair; at least the football coach is willing to take on the job! One incredible school on Long Island fields multiple teams at ISEF, thanks to the devotion of a teacher whose support is intense... but even though this school has seemingly unlimited funds, the kids’ needs still demand that this teacher give up any semblance of a personal life. She seems content with that, but that’s not how things should be. And while it’s absolutely commendable that so many students do so well almost entirely on their own, they shouldn’t have to. In addition to its enormous entertainment value, Science Fair should be heeded as a warning: we, as a culture, as a species, must fund education to the fullest, and give students as well as their teachers everything they need to make the most of it. Our future literally depends upon it, unless we want to end up in an idiocracy.
Science Fair was a hit at Sundance and SXSW this year, winning the audience-favorite awards at both. When a film is beloved by both mainstream moviegoers and the alt ones as well, you know it’s gotta be something special. And this one is.
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