Nominally structured around the Intel Science Talent Search, “Whiz Kids” traces a dual process: the empowerment of economically challenged students who otherwise might not realize their potential, and the empowerment of the nation through the problem-solving efforts of its best and brightest. Pic follows three aspiring high school seniors from preparation of their respective projects to the competition and beyond, affording an in-depth look at these youths’ dedication and the difficulties they encounter. Opening June 4 at Gotham’s Cinema Village, matter-of-fact inspirational docu will doubtless find a welcome TV berth.
Helmer Tom Shepard (working with co-director and lenser Tina DiFeliciantonio) makes clear that all three of his chosen adolescent academics, far from being encouraged in their scientific studies, must overcome daunting obstacles merely to enter a university capable of challenging their curiosity. The high-schoolers also get a taste of the pressures brought to bear on the pure sciences by various special interests.
Ana Cisneros Cisneros, a first-generation Ecuadorian-American, inspires several fellow students in her funky Long Island school to venture to the boondocks to participate in a state science fair, where she rubs elbows with the very farmers and agriculturalists who would most benefit from her experiments. But the opportunity to further her research at a lab at Colorado State U. yields only disappointment when a professor’s neglect invalidates her data.
Harmain Khan, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan when he was an infant, is fiercely motivated by the need to support his large family, unlike his deadbeat dad. He works hard to excel in a special program at Williams College, despite a four-hour daily commute.
Kelydra Welcker need not travel far from her West Virginia home to lock horns with the big boys. Her research leads her to discover that Dupont, the area’s largest employer and source of her father’s pension, was still dumping a toxic Teflon byproduct into the local water supply, contrary to their claims. She discovers an easy affordable way to measure — and remove — the contaminant, but Dupont responds all too predictably, and Shepard tracks her frustration and her parents’ weary sympathy.
Only two of Shepard’s trio reach the Talent Search finals, where, despite the support of teachers and savvy former contestants, they are hopelessly outclassed in terms of formal preparation. With mere minutes to explicate complicated hypotheses, science takes a backseat to the art of pitching concisely, coherently and convincingly.
Nevertheless, the experience proves rewarding to all the seniors, whose social personae blossom in the spotlight, and whose undeniable talent, honed by competition, finds ample expression in subsequent venues.