Movies

Science Fair gets an A for effort

So if you thought that a kick-ass baking-soda volcano or maybe
an electric AND circuit was the epitome of science-fair
success, you’re not in the same league as the young people in
this documentary from first-time feature directors Cristina
Costantini and Darren Foster.

Entrants at the International Science and Engineering Fair
(ISEF) are working on projects that include an arsenic
detector, a new kind of stethoscope, a way to fight the Zika
virus, a flying-wing aircraft, neural networks, and a study of
risk-taking. No Styrofoam solar system models for these kids.

The co-directors follow a bunch of participants from their
high-school work through to the ISEF finals, which last year
were held in Los Angeles. Most are Americans, though the
flying-wing guy is from Germany, and the Zika researchers hail
from rural Brazil, where the 2015 outbreak of the disease
began.

There aren’t many similarities among these young women and men
– Anjali from Kentucky is very intense, for instance, while
Ryan looks, acts and lives like a surfer dude.

But it becomes clear that, in addition to natural smarts and
drive, a dedicated coach or mentor is a must, as are parents
who are, if not overtly supportive, then at least benignly
indifferent. One bemused father of a math genius marvels at how
his son programmed a computer to rap in the style of Kanye
West; he says all his did with his youth was mess about and
crash cars.

The film is fascinating, and delivers a welcome pro-science
message from a country that sometimes seems to be sliding
toward a new Dark Age. But there’s a distinct lack of tension
in the competition. The filmmakers weren’t allowed to film the
judging, which makes for a narrative hole that a “judging
begins in …” countdown can’t fill. Though we do get to see the
effect on the kids, for whom fevers, fainting and throwing up
are not uncommon responses to the stress. Maybe someone could
do a science-fair project about that…

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