Science Fair is one of those rare films that’s almost impossible not to like — and in a sense, that’s my only problem with it. Documentarians Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster have crafted a feel-good crowd-pleaser, slickly produced and with compelling subjects. But it all feels a little too slight, a little too easy, to really be of consequence, even as it tugs at the audience’s heartstrings. After all, following a disparate group of plucky teens as they compete with the zeal and commitment of world-class athletes for a chance to participate in the International Science and Engineering Fair was never going to be anything other than uplifting, was it?
Costantini and Foster pull together a diverse and interesting collection of high schoolers from around the world, and you’ll be as impressed by their intelligence and scientific acumen as with their tenacity and ambition. They’re all likable outsiders — likable, that is, with the notable exception of four smug upper-crusters from an elite magnet school in Kentucky — and some of their stories are downright heart-wrenching. Kashfia, an introverted Muslim teen in rural South Dakota, has previously been to the prestigious competition but finds her accomplishments unfairly overshadowed by her school’s football team, which went the previous season without a win. Then there’s Myllena and Gabriel, two students from an impoverished Brazilian backwater who have developed a molecule to prevent the spread of the Zika virus but have little hope of escaping their small-town environs for a future in academia. The filmmakers focus on an inclusive group of improbably precocious teens, and it would take a colder heart than mine not to root for them all.
But this is a film about competition, and that competition is duly dramatic. Winning the ISEF represents not only bragging rights but a path to promising academic futures for most of these kids. The stakes are high, and the students know it. So, too, do their teachers, particularly hard-nosed perfectionist Dr. Serena McCalla, who pushes her Long Island class to excellence with an intensity typically reserved for NCAA D1 athletic coaches, not high school science teachers. That’s largely what Costantini and Foster are after here, and if they can prompt students and parents alike to place the same emphasis on science fairs as they do on sports, more power to them — although I honestly don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Structurally, Science Fair plays more like a made-for-TV doc than a theatrical release, and its hopeful message comes across as being more than a little pat. But if it’s reductive at times, it does manage to put a spotlight on a subject in dire need of popularization. I was certainly a nerd in high school — and by some assessments, I still am — but I was never a nerd like these nerds. The very fact that a film exists that glamorizes the dour world of academic and intellectual achievement constitutes progress in my book. There’s a very present need to destigmatize intelligence in our society, and if Costantini and Foster can eke out even modest progress in making smart kids look cool with Science Fair, then we’ll all be winners.