'Inventing Tomorrow': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Calling all science geeks.

A multicultural handful of enterprising students tackle environmental problems specific to their respective regions in Laura Nix's doc structured around the world's largest high school science competition.

Science has been taking a beating lately, with climate change deniers firmly ensconced in the White House and environmental protections being rolled back faster than you can say, "Drill, baby, drill." So the optimism of Inventing Tomorrow is quite uplifting, with dauntless teenage thinkers from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds working with resourcefulness and imagination to develop practical solutions to local eco threats.

Laura Nix's crisply assembled documentary is one of two films premiering at the Sundance Film Festival that center around the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles, the other going by the more prosaic title, Science Fair. Nix follows six high school students from different parts of the world as they retrace the origins of their projects, explain how their ingenious systems and prototypes are designed to be applied, and present their entries to judges in a vast hall packed with stands manned by 1,800 competitors from around the globe.

Shofi Latifa Nuha Anfaresi lives on the tropical Indonesian island of Bangka, where waste from legal and illegal offshore tin mining is poisoning the surrounding waters, killing fish, coral and plankton. While the industry is vital to the area's struggling economy, it's devastating for the ecosystem, hence the need for a low-cost filtration system to remove lead from the effluents of the dredging process.

Nuha works on the project with her friend Intan Utami Putri, who is unable to travel to L.A. because of a college entrance exam. But in addition to the inspiring example of two 17-year-olds engaging with their environment in productive ways, it's also a sweet illustration of global affinities (or a sad sign of America's inescapable pop-cultural imprint, take your pick) to see Southeast Asian Muslim girls dealing with setbacks by quoting Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off."

The lake behind Sahithi Pingali's home in Bangalore, India, has twice burst into flames due to toxic waste; once known as "The City of 1,000 Lakes," it now has only 93 remaining, most of them overgrown with weeds and contaminated by industrial spillage or the dumping of raw sewage. Detergents from the nearby housing developments froth up the waterways and send clouds of foam that look like tumbleweeds down the streets. Sahithi's crowdsourced project has the dual aim of monitoring water quality and enabling locals to share that data in a city that risks being dead in 25 years if pollution continues unchecked.

From Monterrey, one of the most industrialized cities in Mexico, Fernando Miguel Sanchez Villalobos, Jesus Alfonso Martinez Aranda and Jose Manuel Elizade Esparaza develop a photocatalytic ceramic paint designed to neutralize two major air pollutants and release nutrients beneficial to plants and soil when it rains.

These three musketeers are perhaps the most endearing personalities among the doc's uniformly likable bunch. They work part-time jobs to help their families, and worry about being able to afford college. But they light up with infectious joy as they arrive in Los Angeles, revealing varying degrees of shyness in their encounters with female students from other countries.

The youngest of the film's subjects is 15-year-old Jared Goodwin, an Asian-American from Hilo, Hawaii. Inspired by his grandmother's survival of two tsunamis, he developed a system to track the debris patterns of those natural disasters, focusing on the disbursement of nearly 30 years' worth of arsenic dumped into a local pond, bleeding into the soil of surrounding neighborhoods.

Nix observes the contestants with their families, some of whom are actively involved in their projects. But mostly the film concentrates on the budding science warriors themselves, recording their nervous preparation; their presentations, some more poised and articulate than others at communicating with the judges; their wins and disappointments; and their next steps after the excitement of ISEF. Martina Radwan's camera excels at capturing the subjects intimately engaged with the physical components of their projects and then expands the view to show the urban or natural landscapes that motivate their work.

The film doesn't get as closely acquainted with individual characters as some other competition-based docs like, say, 2002's Spellbound, about the National Spelling Bee. But it's an empowering celebration of an oft-mocked high school subspecies, the science nerd, highlighting their endeavors and honoring their community-minded spirit of enterprise. "Think Beyond" is the 2017 ISEF slogan, which is precisely what the subjects of Inventing Tomorrow are doing.


Production companies: Fishbowl Films, in association Motto Pictures, 19340 Productions, Shark Island Institute, HHMI, Tangled Bank Studios
Director: Laura Nix
Producers: Diane Becker, Melanie Miller, Laura Nix
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, David J. Cornfield, Linda A. Cornfield, Sharon Chang
Director of photography: Martina Radwan
Music: Laura Karpman
Editors: Helen Kearns, Geraud Brisson, Matt Marlin, Langdon Page
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Submarine

104 minutes

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