2018 is turning out to be another great year for critically acclaimed and commercially successful documentary features that might end up as Oscar nominees in that category. Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on children’s TV host Fred Rogers, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s RBG, a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Three Identical Strangers, Tim Wardle’s disturbing odyssey of male triplets separated at birth are just a few of this year’s success stories and are still enjoying long theatrical runs in cities across the U.S. I also predict a similar enthusiastic reception for Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s Science Fair, an insider look at the annual Intel ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair), which attracts the most gifted science students from high schools around the world.
I have to admit I had little awareness of ISEF and their mission until I saw Science Fair. First established in 1921 under the name Science Service (it is now called the Society for Science & the Public), the organization was created to promote understanding and appreciation for the vital role science plays in our daily lives. It was in 1942 that the Society launched its first educational competition for high school seniors, the Science Talent Search. This annual event has since evolved into a high profile exposition that brings together 1,700 finalists from around the world who present their discoveries and inventions to a panel of judges with the hope of winning the prestigious Best in Fair award.
On the surface, Science Fair, which is distributed by National Geographic Films, has the look and feel of a fast-paced, slickly produced made-for-TV documentary geared for younger audiences but there is much more going on here beneath the surface. Without ever addressing the current White House administration, the film manages to raise topical issues about immigration, gender equality, the environment and the future of the planet through a narrative structure that profiles several individual students and teams as well as a research teacher/coach (the formidable Dr. Serena McCalla of Long Island) and past ISEF winners like Dr. Martin Lo who immigrated from Taiwan and became a NASA Spacecraft Trajectory expert.
The cast of characters couldn’t be a more diverse bunch and they include Ivo, an aviation-obsessed teen from rural Germany, Anjali, a child prodigy who has built an arsenic detection device to help safeguard water distribution and Robbie, an unlikely math genius from West Virginia who has created a computer algorithm that writes rap lyrics in the style of Kanye West. But my favorite contenders are the ones that face much greater obstacles to success such as Kashfia, a shy Muslim girl in a South Dakota high school where sports reign supreme, and the team of Myllena and Gabriel from Ceara, Brazil, which is one of the poorest regions in the country and a hot spot for the Zika virus which the duo are hoping to defeat with their research. Science Fair clearly owes a debt to the structure of previous documentaries that explore competitions in subcultures such as S. R. Bindler’s Hands on a Hardbody (1997), which highlights an endurance contest in Longview, Texas where the prize is a new Nissan truck, Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 doc on the 1999 National Spelling Bee, and Seth Gordon’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), in which passionate practitioners in the art of Donkey Kong, a classic Nintendo arcade game, compete to attain the highest score of all time. While Science Fair might lack the high level of drama and suspense generated by these earlier efforts, it admittedly has a broader canvas to cover with more characters. As a result some of the featured finalists don’t get enough screen time for the viewer to get a clear impression of their personalities or talents.
What co-directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster do succeed at brilliantly is submerging the viewer in a science geek culture that is rarely encountered or experienced by the average moviegoer. Yes, I remember my high school years and how the science club members were kind of nerdy and awkward and kept to themselves but in Science Fair these are the real heroes in the story.
It is really quite remarkable to see some of the visionary ideas and inventions coming from these sixteen and seventeen year old kids. An electronic 3D-printed stethoscope with an online database connection that can diagnose heart abnormalities? A program that can monitor and measure human behavior and emotional imbalance based on desensitizing habits such as drinking or drug use? A vaccine that can inhibit and neutralize the spread of the Zika virus in the bloodstream?
Science Fair concludes with a postscript update on the winners and losers from the ISEF competition depicted but to be truthful, there are no real losers here. Whatever these finalists wanted for themselves – a college scholarship, job offers, international fame – the rewards they end up reaping are often priceless and in the case of Kashfia, a richly deserved vindication. The final takeaway is both uplifting and inspirational, a positive tonic for our current toxic culture. In the end, these young scientists of tomorrow might save us from ourselves.