science fair

Science Fair

MPAA Rating: PG | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2018
Genre: Documentary Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Science Fair borrows a lot from Spellbound, the 2002 documentary which followed 8 young teens through the the Scripps Spelling Bee competition. Science Fair expands on this model by adding another teen and going global–there are stories of 9 teens ranging from Brazil to Germany to all across the US as they compete to be “Best in Fair” at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). With 1,700 teens from 78 different countries and $75,000 in potential winnings, there’s a lot of competitive pressure. There are a lot of emotions involved, and Science Fair thrusts you into those right from the start as the opening scene shows a viral video from a previous year’s winner. It’s touching, if a bit over-the-top. Such is adolescence.

The young people in this documentary are both ordinary teenagers and extraordinary individuals. Brilliant, creative, and driven, with a variety of backgrounds and challenges, I appreciated Science Fair‘s willingness to take the time to really dive into each of their stories. We first meet 14-year-old Anjali, a driven, competitive student from a magnet school in Louisville, a high school essentially designed around winning such science competitions. Then we’re off to South Dakota to meet Kashfia, a young Muslim woman in a mostly-white community and in a high school seemingly more dedicated to athletics than academics. She’s researching at-risk behaviors in teens and finding ways to address those challenges via neuroscience. As she needs a teacher to sponsor her, the athletic coach gives her his support, though he doesn’t really understand what she does. Then we zoom across the world to Brazil to meet Myllena and Gabriel, students from a poor rural community who are studying ways to combat the Zika virus.

It’s so inspiring to see teens accomplish amazing things when they’re supported and encouraged, but the filmmaking is hampered by too many narrative threads and the difficulty of not being able to film the actual judging in what should be the cathartic climax. When the teens finally reach ISEF, the editing does its best to ramp up the tension and keep the audience engaged. But there are limits here–much of what the teens are researching and discussing would simply go over the heads of most audiences, using technical jargon that makes people feel ignorant or stupid (I know–I’m an academic, and can come across this way if I’m not careful!). So the film doesn’t show much of that, and when it does, it’s often played for jokes (isn’t it funny that teens understand this science stuff?).

Then there’s the fact that the final judgments are made behind closed doors, meaning after all the build up, we are left outside to wonder what really happened in there. Without spoilers, the person who wins the final award isn’t who I expected or wanted, nor is it a person the film gives much time or emotional energy. That’s the reality of the competition, I suppose, and the documentary depicts it as such. But it’s disappointing to see so much progress within the film (and in the world at large) in terms of diversity and equality, only to have the person with the most funding and resources, as well as the most “marketable” project (read: this will make people money) take home the winnings and prestige. The film also misses an opportunity to explore the dynamics of competition itself, how reducing scientific progress into awards ceremonies and financial dollars might be more detrimental than beneficial, especially for malleable young minds and hearts. Is making people make posters to earn awards to get research funding to prevent diseases putting the cart before the horse? Science Fair has won its own awards, most notably the Audience Award at Sundance this past year, and it deserves it–it’s both heart-warming and entertaining, a true audience-pleaser. Even if the future seems bleak at times, the emerging generation is full of hope and wonder, curiosity and verve. Though she wasn’t supported by her school back in South Dakota, Kashfia is now attending Harvard. I can’t wait to hear of the discoveries and advances she makes. When adults come alongside teens as their advocates and coaches, young people can change the world.

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