'Science Fair': Film Review | Sundance 2018
Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s doc follows a group of high-school prodigies as they compete to become recognized as the best young scientists in the world.
Every year, thousands of high schoolers compete in an array of fields to win scholarships, travel-study grants and research opportunities by participating in the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), currently sponsored by Intel. Sometimes described as the “Olympics of science fairs,” ISEF is the largest international science competition for pre-college students, offering young people the opportunity to develop, research and present their findings and inventions to a prestigious lineup of judges and fellow contestants from all over the world.
The occasion of the 2017 ISEF, held in Los Angeles, provides the departure point for Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s documentary, a deep dive into the multifaceted criteria required to become a young science champion. Programmed in the festival’s Kids section, Science Fair may struggle to break out of the educational doc category, but with a lineup of inspiring contestants and a familiar competition format, the film could easily find its tribe among similarly quirky doc subjects.
The filmmakers’ first challenge is to identify promising young scientists competing to attend the fair who may actually have the potential to come out on top. First though, the students will need to qualify in one of 425 regional competitions before they make it to L.A. Among the most promising contenders, Kashfia Rahman struggles to find a faculty sponsor for her project researching brain function among adolescents attracted to risky behavior. As a young woman who’s both a science geek and a Muslim, she’s practically invisible to her teachers and classmates at a large high school in Brookings, South Dakota.
Even that difficult situation seems more advantageous than the prospects facing Myllena Braz de Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins, two teen researchers from the impoverished Brazilian state of Ceara. Their region was at the epicenter of a widespread Zika virus epidemic beginning in 2015, sorely testing the resilience of the area’s public health resources. In response, the students undertook a research project that identified a protein capable of interfering with the spread of Zika in the human body.
Half a world away, German student Ivo Zell dreams of revolutionizing aeronautics. An enthusiastic model plane builder and operator like his dad, this whiz kid reconfigured the aircraft design known as the flying wing to improve stability and fuel-efficiency, then hand-built an operational model. Other contestants profiled include a trio of young men from a Kentucky high school conducting cardiac-device research, a female classmate from the same school who’s developing an arsenic-detection device and a quirky West Virginia math genius obsessed with computer programming.
After they all triumph in their qualifying competitions, the contestants advance to the ISEF event in Los Angeles, where they will face off in 22 categories against a much more accomplished field of 1,700 participants from 78 countries and territories. The students will have six minutes to present their projects to a group of four judges in their specialty area and winners will be determined in each category before an overall grand prize recipient is selected.
By the time that the filmmakers arrive at ISEF, their subjects have emerged as distinct personalities. The daughter of immigrant parents, Kashfia comes across as quiet and shy, but displays incredible determination in response to a largely unsupportive school community. Growing up in poverty, Myllena and Gabriel hope that their research and competitive distinction will open doors beyond their rural region for both educational and professional opportunities. Clearly the endearingly geeky Ivo is set on pursuing a career in aeronautics in an attempt to challenge and reimagine current engineering concepts and practices.
All of the teens profiled in the film are incredibly bright and talented, and most are remarkably modest about their skills. Although standardized test scores are rarely mentioned, some of them might be considered intellectually gifted, although their objectives are all identifiably concrete.
First-time long-form directors Costantini and Foster, working from a script co-written with Jeffrey Plunkett, demonstrate admirable resourcefulness and empathy approaching their diverse teen subjects. It helps of course that Costantini is a former ISEF participant, enabling the filmmakers to judiciously balance the technical and emotional facets of the film.
Of course only one student can win the $75,000 scholarship top prize, but other competitors take home lesser awards along with the exhilarating experience of competing as an ISEF contestant, which can help improve their college-admissions and employment prospects. Or perhaps some will be set out on career paths as journalists and filmmakers, like Costantini herself.
Production companies: Fusion Media Group, Muck Media
Directors: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster
Screenwriters: Jeffrey Plunkett, Darren Foster, Cristina Costantini
Producers: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett
Executive producers: Isaac Lee, Daniel Eilemberg, Keith Summa, George Lansbury
Director of photography: Peter Alton
Editors: Tom Maroney, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin
Music: Jeff Morrow
Sales: Cinetic Media
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Kids)
Not rated, 95 minutes