- Movie Rating -

Science Fair (2018)

| November 20, 2018

As a veteran underachiever, I could only imagine in vivid dreams what the kids featured in the Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s documentary Science Fair must be going through.  The idea of being in high school or junior high and pushing yourself against stiff international competition to be the best in a field populated by other kids who are potentially the cream of America’s future crop of scientists must be daunting.  As an adult, long out of the riggers of special classes to overcome a crippling learning disability, I can say that watching a group of overachievers is inspiring.  These kids these days?  It’s refreshing to note that not every kid is a naïve dolt who spends most of his or her time gawking at a cell phone.

Science Fair is about a crop of brilliant kids from different backgrounds, all competing in the International Science and Engineering Fair, an event which draws some 1,500 students from 75 countries to show their work in fields ranging from engineering to computer technology to preventative cures for cancer.  The movie whittles focus of the vast number of entries down to nine, boys and girls from different parts of the world with different projects in mind.  The projects are eclectic and fascinating but often too are the kids presenting them.  They are young, bright, visionary and, being so young, are more than a bit naive.  Bless their hearts.

That naive, impetuousness and enthusiasm is sort of endearing.  The movie opens with a funny and touching clip of Jack Andraka that went viral in 2012 when he won The Gordan E. Moore Award which recognizes the best of the best among students from around the world.  When he won the award for creating a new testing dipstick for detecting pancreatic cancer, Andraka excitedly screamed and cried his way to the stage.  Now in his early 20s he is a researcher in the field of curing and preventing pancreatic cancer.  If you think the future of the country is doomed by its youth, all you need do is look at Andraka and the other spotlighted kids to witness a potentially bright future.

Science Fair introduces us to an interesting volley of kids, the most interesting to me is 14 year-old Anjani Chadha, an inventive chatterbox attending a prestigious school in Louisville, Kentucky who had found a way to detect traces of arsenic in water that could prevent cancer in the future.  She believes that her communication skills are what separate her from the competition.  Other competitors stumble which talking to the judges, but she’s much more focused.  “That’s why I win,” she says.  She knows that her gender is a disadvantage, that it is more likely for a boy to be picked by the judges, and so she believes that it is important be smarter, faster and better prepared.  Her energy is infectious.

Another is Kashfia Rahman, a student at a less prestigious school in Brookings, South Dakota that vastly favors sports over science.  She failed to find a science teacher willing to sponsor her so she asked the football coach to be her faculty adviser.  Her work is in studying how cognitive functions in youth are affected by the drug and alcohol problems that she sees around her from her classmates who barely even seem to know her or what she does.

Then there’s Gabriel and Myllena, two Brazilian students who are working on a method of halting the Zika virus in spite of a lack of support either in the school or elsewhere.  Their story is haunting because it not only shows the struggle to succeed for these kids but is a world-weary course in what they will likely face in their future careers.

The kids themselves are interesting but if there is a stumbling quality to Science Fair, it may be that the film focuses too much on the student’s personalities and less on their work – as if Constantini and Foster don’t trust us enough to grasp the complex work that the kids are working on.  The exception is Ivo Zell, a German-born teen who is developing a fuel-efficient model airplane that can radically improve drone technology.

Science Fair, as a movie, is nice.  That’s about it.  It’s a nice movie that is involving while you’re watching it but doesn’t leave much of an impact when it is over.  The kids are interesting and you want to see them succeed but none stay in your mind like, say, William Gates and Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams.  We get a nugget of information here and a struggle or two there but we sense that it’s nothing they can’t handle.  Science Fair will melt your heart, but it won’t be a permanent thaw.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary