An affectionate and supremely entertaining celebration of the all-American nerd, “Science Fair” may look like a straightforward super-kid contest doc, à la “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom,” but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes of Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s thoroughly researched crowd-pleaser, winner of Sundance 2018’s inaugural festival-wide audience award. At a time when politicians pooh-pooh climate change and peddle the fantasy of “beautiful, clean coal,” the best way to make America great again is not by backtracking to old ideals, but by embracing science and progress — and the heroes most likely to carry us forward aren’t necessarily old guys in lab coats (though we’ll need them, too!), but a new generation of science geeks eager to make a difference.
Now, here’s the twist even world’s biggest high-school bully could get on board with: The thing that motivates these kids to excel isn’t group hugs or chanting “Kumbaya,” but a fiercely competitive attitude combined with good, old-fashioned greed — since the winner of the best overall project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) stands to collect $75,000.
For any who doubt how much an ISEF win can mean, “Science Fair” opens with footage of high school freshman Jack Andraka apparently losing his mind when his name is called for the prestigious Gordon E. Moore Award. Andraka’s reaction pretty much summarizes what a big deal ISEF is to those who participate. (Yours truly earned a year’s subscription to Science News, but never advanced to nationals.) Such recognition can sometimes be enough to earn scholarships or launch a teenager’s research career, just as discoveries made by open-minded young prodigies can yield important breakthroughs.
As in other non-fiction competition films, the directors profile a wide range of eccentric characters, even looking abroad to include an impressive young woman from a resource-poor Brazilian town with an innovative solution for treating the Zika virus and a gangly German teenager whose love for aeronautics inspired him to radically rethink a single-wing aircraft design. (After all, ISEF attracts participants from 78 countries, which makes for a truly surreal mix when the finalists come together in Los Angeles for a dance party — a scene one participant jokingly describes as “200 Indian students standing around two girls.”)
For the most part, however, these kids have little else on the mind than their research, and by examining nine different science students in depth, the doc captures the range of engagement to be found at different schools. Kentucky-based duPont Manual has been a serious ISEF contender for years, and the program there seems engineered to send multiple teams to nationals. By contrast, sports is the top priority in Brookings, South Dakota (despite the local team’s abysmal 0-9 athletic record), which makes it all the more inspirational that a shy Muslim girl named Kashfia has somehow convinced the football coach to sponsor her project.
Science prodigies are almost by definition social misfits, which makes it simultaneously amusing and a bit pathetic to witness how awkwardly they fit in at school. Take Robbie, a long-haired kid with a taste for crazy-patterned shirts who can’t be bothered with tests and homework, but managed to reprogram the school’s graphing calculators to spit out Shakespearean insults (e.g. “Thou art an unwashed buttock”). By creating an algorithm to analyze all of Kanye West’s lyrics, Robbie “taught” a computer to rap — which isn’t so much an experiment as a prank with impressive potential machine-learning applications. Needless to say, he’s kind of a loner. Same goes for Anjali, a hyper-articulate duPont student who’s well on her way to curing cancer, at the cost of being somewhat unpopular among her peers.
“Science Fair” goes a long way to validate these students’ obsessive desire to be recognized for their research, while giving would-be geeks in the audience a host of misfit role models to encourage their own interest in science. Conceived as both a standalone feature and a more expansive series for the Fusion network, Costantini and Foster’s project points not only to the future, but also back to that great era for which our leaders seem so nostalgic, interviewing past winners who belong to a time when the space-shuttle program was still active, but most of the participants were white and male. Today, anyone can win. All it takes is a good idea.