By Elias Savada.
Science Fair, the new National Geographic documentary, follows the audience-pleasing formula easily recognizable in its predecessors. There are many fans of Spellbound (2002), an enlightening race to the top of the Scripps National Spelling Bee; Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), which chronicled schoolkids in New York City vying for a chance for the brass ring in a ballroom dancing competition; and last year’s Step, which follows the trajectories of African-American students in Baltimore as they battle inner and outer demons in quest of enlightenment, empowerment, and a dance team trophy. Add to that list this first feature from Cristina Costanti and Darren Foster, who previously collaborated on 2016’s The Naked Truth: Death by Fentanyl, an award-winning 43-minute film investigating the deadly drug epidemic affecting the United States.
While their last effort was a hard-hitting downer, their collaborative feature debut is an immensely satisfying upper. Large in scope, the film follows numerous inspirational kids and one especially inspiring teacher as they travel from far flung corners of the globe toward the ultimate high school student showdown at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest international pre-college science competition featuring 1,700 kids from 78 countries.
Oddly enough, there’s another empowering documentary that premiered at Sundance this year – Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow – which tracks along the same globe-trotting backstory format, following students trying to deal with worldwide environmental threats. Watching them side-by-side (I caught this one at AFI DOCS, and it just started its release at the end of August) you can easily interchange the stories, although Nix centers more on high schoolers dealing with water and air pollution and other airborne contaminants. Science Fair widens this limited scope beyond the climate issues, as ISEF actually covers dozens of scientific categories, from Animal Science to Translational Medical Science. The top prizes, which come with big dollar awards, are in addition to nearly 600 finalists that are recognized by Society for Science & the Public, which programs the event. Both films do showcase and promote how accessibility future scientists can be, despite the inaccurate perception that they are “different” or even unworldly because of their geeky interests. These kids are smart, fascinating, and, generally, as easy going as the rest of us. And they know how to party.
Costanti, herself a two-time alumna of ISEF, figured that her life-altering experience could easily translate to the big screen, where Science Fair could further introduce budding scientists to a world beyond their small towns and communities. Even for those who are clueless about the geeky stuff that fascinates the film’s subjects, the manner by which the directors portray them should inspire anyone beyond the realm of the classroom, as it did at this year’s SXSW and Sundance Film Festivals, where it was a favorite, winning two Audience Awards.
The teenagers followed in Science Fair are all shapes of awkwardness and smiles. Some realize they stand alone in their community, while others are embraced as true neighborhood champions. Kashfia Rahman, a Muslim, is a student in a Brookings, South Dakota, where sport is king and science is an afterthought. When no teacher steps forward to act as her advisor, she befriends the school’s football coach in an unlikely mentorship. BFF’s Myllena Braz de Zilva and Gabriel de Moura Martins are researching the Zika virus, hoping a win is ISEF will allow them to escape Cearà, one of Brazil’s poorest states. West Virginia math geek Robbie Barrat constructs computers from scavenged parts and codes unusual algorithms. His bright, colorful shirts are awesome. Kentucky teens Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu, and Abraham Riedel-Mishaan work as a trio to create a low-cost stethoscope. Their future lies in computer science and chemical/physical biology. Anjali Chahda, a fellow student at Jefferson High School, is brilliant, focused, and working on an arsenic-testing device, similar a project found in Inventing Tomorrow. Ivo Zell literary towers over his competition. A model plan enthusiast from Lorch, Germany, he stands well above six feet as he fixates on radically updating a century-old design for a single-wing aircraft. There’s also Dr. Serena McCalla, a teacher at Jericho (Long Island, New York) High School, who has an abundance of science nerds in her highly competitive school. Nine (!) of her students quality for the competition in various fields. Paying tribute to past winner Jack Andraka, the film begins with his raucous reaction as his name is called as the 2012 recipient of the Gordon E. Moore Award, named after the founder of the Intel Corporation and namesake of “Moore’s Law.” His project was a novel paper sensor for the detection of pancreatic cancer.
So, yes, geeks rule. And Science Fair cheers them on. The film embraces friendships across borders and above politics, and showcases teenagers striving for excellence among their peers – hopefully a foothold to a research career and as motivators eager for a spot, front-and-center, solving some our planet’s problems. Like its incredible subjects, Science Fair is a winner.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).