Science Fair is a simplified, inspirational, feel good documentary about bright and motivated teenagers from around the world vying for one of the most coveted prizes in all of science and engineering with their inventions, innovations, research, and creations. It’s certainly a hopeful balm for increasingly cynical times where science has come under attack by certain public interests and politicians, but as a film, there’s a lot more that Science Fair could be doing to make the work of these young people more emotionally resonant and relevant. And the fact that there was another film already this year that did a much better job with equally similar aims built around the exact same competition leaves Science Fair looking somewhat redundant and lacking.
Directors Cristina Costantini (who’s a science fair veteran from back in the day) and Darren Foster team up to look at a handful of young people competing on local, state, and national levels for a coveted showcase at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. Each of these budding engineers, programmers, life scientists, and inventors come from different cultural and economic backgrounds. Some aspects of their lives are assets, while others provide obstacles that need to be overcome. Structurally and visually, Science Fair isn’t different from any number of similarly minded documentaries centered around a single event or gathering where the filmmakers spend a few minutes with a handful of subjects they find interesting, and some of the stories contained within Costantini and Foster’s work are particularly poignant.
There’s a female, Muslim high school junior from South Dakota who attends a school that places its hilariously crappy athletic programs above academic extracurriculars. She finds an unlikely mentor in the school’s football coach after the her science teachers show little interest. An advanced sophomore from a highly comepetitive school in Kentucky boasts a wealth of confidence, knowledge, and technique, and she openly wonders if her self-assurance isn’t as well received as her equally boastful male counterparts. Two best friends from a village in northern Brazil team up to examine how to treat infants and children who were exposed to the Zika virus in utero. A kid who flunked out of algebra in West Virginia teaches a computer network how to rap in the style of Kanye West, and while it sounds like a lark, it might seriously be this young man’s only chance at getting into a good college or university. There’s even a look at a boisterous, hard edged teacher from Jericho, New York who’s known for pushing her students as hard as possible to achieve science fair greatness.
Each of these subjects could’ve been spun off into their own vastly different stand-alone documentaries, but for the sake of brevity and inclusiveness, Science Fair lumps them all together, spending about two to five minutes with each of them at a time before checking in on someone else. With a total of nine different stories competing for screen time in Science Fair’s compact ninety minute running time, it’s easy to see which stories Costantini and Foster found the most interesting and dramatic. It’s also easy to question why they couldn’t have simplified things further by just focusing on two or three of these threads in depth instead of offering up brisk bullet point presentations. Their stories all hold great value, but Science Fair needs a different style of editing and storytelling for the personalities of these young men and women (who are predominantly American) to shine through. We only know enough about them to understand their projects on the most basic of levels and to see how they differ from the film’s other subjects. There’s a nice level of emotion that’s sustained throughout Science Fair, but more nuanced and judicious editing could’ve turned this into something truly special and memorable.
Costantini and Foster also have to try to convey to viewers the intricacies and requirements of competing in such a massive competition. These budding innovators have to know how to speak publiclly and concisely to present their works to judges, something some of the film’s subjects stumble over. Every installation has to come with an easy to read, clearly thought out presentation board that requires no small amount of stressing. The paperwork alone to get accepted into ISEF is so daunting and nerve-wracking that most of the students taking part in the competition will be well prepared for grant applications and doing their own taxes in the future. Science Fair slows down at times to look at how some of the teens deal with these logistical and institutional speed bumps, but the fine details get lost in the film’s mad dash to remain concise and contain all of its stories.
Earlier this year, Science Fair premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where another documentary, Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow (which played Hot Docs in the spring, but never saw a proper Canadian theatrical release), told a similar story about teens competing in the same competition in the exact same year. Nix’s film looked primarily at international students looking to draw attention to climate change issues through their appearances at ISEF. Nix’s film has a lot of the nuanced focus and insightful human interest beats that Science Fair lacks in favour of whatever’s cutest and quirkiest. Neither belittles the work of their profiled teen geniuses, but Nix’s film is vastly superior in terms of storytelling, fostering empathy for the kids involved, and directly showing why their work matters in our world today. Inventing Tomorrow makes ISEF look vital. Science Fair makes the competition look like a cool thing to put down on a university application. Having seen both films in the span of a few months and noticing their similarities and differences, it’s impossible for me to divorce one from the other when Nix’s film is so obviously superior. That takes nothing away from Science Fair being a perfectly serviceable documentary that should appeal to young people and anyone looking to put a smile on their face, but it’s a shame that local audiences likely won’t have anything to compare it to in wide release. One is an example of a film that lives up to its full potential, while the other is just a simple crowd pleaser.
I don’t mean to sound overly harsh about Science Fair, but it’s the kind of film one wants to be better than it actually is. I will go to bat for anything that can inspire kids to pick up a microscope, book about coding, or calculator any day of the week. There can only be a handful of winners at ISEF, but anyone who makes it that far (or even attempts to compete at such a high level) deserves to be celebrated and praised. In the end, I’m willing to forgive Science Fair’s overly simplified approach to such a topic because even the most basic telling of such stories is better than ignoring them. While I think Science Fair could be better crafted, we still need more films like this. There’s nothing more inspirational than seeing a job well done, and on that basest of levels, Science Fair succeeds.
Science Fair opens exclusively at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, November 2, 2018. It expands to Montreal on November 9 and to additional Canadian cities throughout the fall.Check out the trailer for Science Fair: