Documentary Review: Sundance, SXSW winner “Science Fair” celebrates the Smart Kids

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It’s not secret that a documentary’s subject matter is more important to our reaction to it than its originality, “plot” and execution.

We fill the theaters for political docs we agree with, be they from Dinesh D’Souza or Michael Moore.

When Ricky Gervais jokes about Holocaust films and their record at the Golden Globes and Oscars, he’s making the same point — subject matter that connects with the audience is more important than dazzling style.

So it’s no surprise that “Science Fair,” an upbeat look at kids from around the world embracing science, was the Audience Award Winner at the Sundance and South by Southwest Film Festivals. At a time when reactionary politics and know-nothingism has reared its ugly head in too much of the world, here is the next generation,  smart as can be, bubbly about learning, straining at the bit to solve big medical, social and technical problems of the future AS TEENS.

Subtexts? You can’t miss the fact that many of America’s best and brightest, our hope for the future, are the children of immigrants, even in places that aren’t particularly welcoming of immigrants. An immigrant science teacher who fills ISEF — the International Science and Engineering Fair, a worldwide contest founded and championed in America — with her most dazzling Long Island students, lays it out there. Immigrants have always tried harder and they’re what made America great.

“I can’t wait until one of my kids wins the Nobel Prize,” Dr. Serena McCalla brags. Don’t bet against.

There is NOTHING more American than competition, striving for excellence, bringing in new brains with new ways of looking at things and new ideas, a past winner, Martin Lo of NASA, declares.

And what’s more American than bragging about it?

“Science Fair” introduces us to entrants in the 2017 ISEF, a gathering of 1700 of the smartest,, most ambitious teens the world has to offer, from 78 countries, competing to see who has the best new ideas in Earth sciences, life sciences and medicine, technology and engineering.

Filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster traveled to Brazil and Germany, South Dakota, West Virginia and Kentucky, finding bright-eyed kids with unbridled enthusiasm for science and solving world problems with their ideas.

Anjali is one of the science stars at the best school in Kentucky. The DuMont Manual School produces kids who get into ISEF almost every year, and she’s one of them.

“A lot of people are very jealous of me. It sounds arrogant, but it’s true,” this daughter of immigrants declares. She’s a polymath with a dazzling array of scientific interests including this sensor that measures arsenic in drinking water, a global health concern.

“My research is great. I’ve always been a good public speaker. that’s why I win.” But even when she loses, she is unfazed. “It keeps me grounded. I’m just another kid.”

Of course Anjali has her own web site. She knows marketing herself towards a top college is the real goal of science fairs, and being in a documentary can be part of that.

We meet three other kids from DuPont Manual — Harsha, Ryan and Abraham — a real life “Big Bang Theory” of smarties. They’re working on a diagnostic stethoscope usable the world over.

We don’t have to be told that this is all happening in a state infamous for its Creation (Creationism) Museum and science denier in chief Mitch McConnell.

Ivo in Lorch, Germany has taken a new approach to an old, mostly-abandoned concept, the flying wing, and engineered a new design that could change aviation. He’s on Youtube, helpful because his is the most cinematic of the Big Ideas that the kids profiled here pitch.

Myllena and Gabriel are the film’s underdogs, working class kids from tiny Iracema, Brazil, modeling and analyzing new drugs that could battle a local crisis that’s gone global — the Zika virus.

If this was just a movie, or the audience got to pick winners, you’d make these two the favorites. But ISEF isn’t sentimental. Real scientists from California’s tech and space industries and best of the best colleges judge each project on its originality, scientific soundness, presentation and methodology documentation. They’re demanding, a little cold-blooded about it, and go to great pains to reward the best, soundest ideas.

Just like science.

Robbie is entirely too smart for his corner of West Virginia — cocky, clever, hipster nerdy in his Hawaiian shirts. He whipped up an app that can invent raps just like Kanye West. JUST like Kanye. His ISEF project is a device/process for monitoring how machines learn, an important component in the machine-learning (self-driving cars, for instance) future.

We can see, straight out, that Robbie needs to be challenged and the movie hints that this won’t happen in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia.

But his mountain to climb is nothing compared to what Kashfia Rahman faces in the flatlands of Brookings, South Dakota. Her school is depicted as sports-obsessed,, endless money poured into facilities in pursuit of a glory that adds nothing to the culture.

The biggest laugh in “Science Fair” might be the kids at Brookings, shrugging at the millions the alumni and the state have dumped on a WINLESS football team. The saddest  moment in “Science Fair” is the school’s dimwitted refusal to formally or informally acknowledge this contest-winning genius in their midst, child of Pakistani immigrants. Her hijab might have something to do with it, the thing that makes her feel uncomfortable, “especially at Walmart.”

Even the football coach knows that’s messed up.

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And then there’s Dr. Serena McCalla, the daughter of Panamanian immigrants badgering, demanding excellence from a legion of students — many of them children of immigrants — from her Long Island school. She’s a mother figure to them all right — a Tiger Mom.

“Science Fair visits with past winners of ISEF, which started life as a US national competition during World War II, showing us the shakers and movers of science that many of them became — at NASA, MIT and elsewhere.

In the 1960s during the space race, ISEF was a very big deal. “Science Fair” suggests that maybe it can be again.

A recent past winner, Jack Andraka, was 15 when he took the top prize, a $75,000 award named in honor of Intel founder Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law fame). His exultant, just-won-the-Super Bowl reaction as confetti cannons went off behind him made him and ISEF famous a few years back, and he’s here to tell the prospective winners how this event will change their lives.

But win or lose, this global gathering of the tribes lets smart kids be smart among others who care about science as much as they do, to check out what the competition is attempting and thinking about, to learn, to dance at a nerd prom (they don’t call it that, but they should, with pride).

As I alluded earlier, a lot of what is depicted here isn’t necessarily cinematic. Ovarian cancer detection and “Hum Your Way to a Better Life” don’t make for great pictures. The science is always explained or described rather than shown (save for Ivo’s wing), and by focusing on so many kids, the personality profiles feel a little shortchanged.

The actual judging is done off camera, so the most fraught and grueling part of the story, the “big game” they’re all counting down towards, is a non-starter.

“That makes “Science Fair” more an Audience Award winner than a great film. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring, that the kids and their heroically supportive teachers aren’t winners  worth celebrating, heralding and deserving of  parades down Main Street, Brookings, South Dakota.

Bravo, National Geographic Channel, for flying in the face of the zeitgeist, getting this made and putting it in front of audiences in theaters, and later on TV.

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MPAA Rating:  PG for some thematic elements and brief language

Credits: Written and directed by Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster. A National Geographic Channel release.

Running time: 1:30

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