Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 spelling-bee documentary “Spellbound” continues to cast a long shadow over contemporary nonfiction cinema, with Laura Nix’s “Inventing Tomorrow” the latest doc to hew to that formal template. Nix’s film follows a collection of young kids as they prepare for, and then compete at, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), dubbed by one speaker as “The science fair of science fairs.” “Inventing Tomorrow” won’t win points for originality, but this snapshot of adolescent ingenuity and innovation, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, nonetheless proves equally entertaining and inspiring.
The documentary is structured in two parts, the first focusing on the backstories and creative undertakings of its subjects as they face polluted home environments. In Bangalore, India, 16-year-old Sahithi takes samples of the area’s lakes, which are so contaminated that they’re covered in mountains of noxious foam, which often blows into the streets and onto unsuspecting pedestrians. Teenagers Jesus, Jose and Fernando, meanwhile, are concerned with the air pollution plaguing their hometown of Monterrey, Mexico. The most urgent issue confronted by Bangka, Indonesia, student Nuha is the waste produced by the region’s tin mining operations, which are poisoning the ocean. And in Hilo, Hawaii, Jared is fixated on investigating arsenic levels in his community’s soil, exacerbated by two 20th-century tsunamis.
The kids’ solutions to these problems are clever, be it a photocatalytic paint devised by Jesus, Jose and Fernando that can turn smog into nontoxic elements, or the homemade app designed by Sahithi to analyze pollutants. Nix’s portraits of these intrepid youngsters are concise and compelling, if skimpy; aside from a few brief interactions with peers and parents that relay their economic backgrounds and particular dilemmas, there’s no larger sense of who they are and where they come from. Given the director’s storytelling format, this shortcoming is predictable, but one still clamors for more background on how these kids became enamored with their fields of study, realized that they’d struck upon a topic of interest, and first figured out how to tackle it.
Once “Inventing Tomorrow” makes its way to Los Angeles and the enormous, multicultural ISEF, it manages to compensate for its early tenuousness by depicting the vital, and heartening, dialogue engendered by the event — an intercultural exchange of ideas and experiences that broadens teens’ horizons, allows them to share ideas with those who are different from themselves and to develop and spread social and scientific consciousness. United by their fondness for intellectual challenges, they exemplify the limitless possibilities created when people use their imagination for altruistic problem-solving and collaborate with others for the greater good.
As such, though “Inventing Tomorrow” builds toward judgment day — when the kids battle nerves and language-barriers to give presentations to evaluators — the question of who will win and who will lose becomes something of an afterthought. There’s no heartbreak in Nix’s film, only mild disappointment that’s quickly overshadowed by the belief that academic ambition is something that benefits not just individuals but the world around them. No matter the formulaic way that message is communicated, it can’t help but leave the viewer feeling hopeful about the future.