Science Fair Movie Review
The best single moment of Science Fair occurs in the first few seconds of the National Geographic doc (and can also be seen in the trailer), not typically when you want your film to peak. But this scene, of a flamboyantly excited young man discovering he won a prestigious award, merely sets the stage for an entertaining if straightforward look at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and the high school students who take part, who are much, much smarter than you or I.
I left out a few instances of “much,” for the record.
The documentary, from Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, follows nine students from various parts of the world. The doc doesn’t have much purpose beyond that other than to highlight that fascinating work is being done by young people with limited resources.
And perhaps to show that despite the current U.S. government’s anti-science push these last couple years, STEM research is alive and kicking and will not be deterred.
Each of the students are personalities in their own right, as you might expect—one is a guy who has developed a machine learning algorithm, but who is terrible in school; another looks and talks like a jock, and despite being diagnosed with mono refuses to skip ISEF’s mixer, in which thousands of “nerds” come together to dance in ways you’d expect nerds to dance (note: I dance like a nerd, probably because I am a nerd); a third is a Muslim-American girl who despite her brilliance is never acknowledged by her school, even after winning an award; another two developed a way to combat Zika despite access to almost nonexistent funding.
Science Fair explores the work that goes into the chance to even compete for ISEF, and what drives these students to deliver the very best. The documentary also focuses some on Jericho High School science teacher Serena McCalla, who through direct and often forceful leadership derives the best of her many students who get selected to attend ISEF (a stark contrast to another teacher briefly interviewed in the doc, who said she just wanted one of the students to complete the algebra homework assigned to him).
As good as Science Fair is, the one part Costantini and Foster fail to do is properly describe the work that the ultimate ISEF winner was selected for. Of all the candidates, his work appeared to be the most straightforward and least groundbreaking, but obviously that isn’t the case—the filmmakers simply did a poor job of describing what makes his work so remarkable.
It’s a minor fault in what is otherwise a well done documentary, one that maybe isn’t as shocking or enthralling as the kind of docs I’m typically drawn to but is nonetheless an entertaining depiction of our future, one that shows the power of diversity, smarts, and our future bosses.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.