Science Fair


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Science Fair
"Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster have produced a film that charms, compels, shines a light on a field of competition that will be unfamiliar to audiences outwith the US." | Photo: Peter Alton

Made for National Geographic, Science Fair is a charming documentary that follows participants on their journeys to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair - a fiercely competitive event whose scope, scale, and branding can't be escaped.

Science Fair sets out its stall well, and though its narrative structure isn't imperiled by the injection of false jeopardy it suffers a little because it doesn't add context for audiences unfamiliar with the arena it depicts. There's some context about historic national science fairs, interviews with past winners (including an actual rocket scientist/orbital mechanic), but I found myself asking questions about resources, about intent. There's mention of magnet schools, but not an explanation of one of the many vagaries of the American high school system. There's evidence of stark contrast between funding regimes for sports and science, but more time is spent explaining qualification to the event than the nature of the event itself.

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There are loads of kids in this, lovely ones - frequently described in attendant material as "nerds" but beyond their technical and academic achievements they display levels of emotional maturity that do them real credit - kids depicted (as their science is) fairly. They get a chance to speak about their work, about themselves, about what the event means to them, and though there are several segments where parents, guardians, mentors, even fellow pupils are interviewed, they're given the chance to give account of themselves and are not found wanting.

The same cannot always be said of their support. The science these kids are doing is incredible - re-engineered flying wings, protein inhibition as a mechanism for slowing/halting the spread of Zika, neural activity analysis in connection with identifying risk-taking behaviours, arsenic monitoring for public health (the goal "isn't to cure cancer, but to prevent it"), app assisted stethoscopy, machine learning analysis of machine learning decision making, stuff that's sufficiently cutting edge that there's worry about ethics waivers and medical consents. Kashfia (one of the nine students followed by the film) attends a school with three gymnasiums*, whose football team have a stadium with a display screen that's probably bigger than the ones at Murrayfield, but while they are lauded despite a season with no wins and nine losses, well, it'd spoil it - and as with the flying wing, caution about spoilers is necessary.

Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster have produced a film that charms, compels, shines a light on a field of competition that will be unfamiliar to audiences outwith the US - it's clearly a favourite there, winning (another first) the audience award at Sundance this year. It's got some neat touches - a countdown clock is well used, the opening montage with its juxtaposition of film artifacts and archive footage reminded me most of the Fallout series of videogames, and it does a fair job of depicting some pretty exotic chemistry. Not just in the submissions to the competition, but in the confluence of hundreds, thousands of polyglot teenagers in LA's convention centre.

There's a reference to Predator in terms of the tension before judging, but shots of the Griffiths Observatory and the skylights of the venue recall other mad sciences, face-offs and terminations - though all ultimately human stories. Science Fair draws well from that cloth, cut carefully, a lot of its strength is in the edit. These kids give great material, but it is here well tailored. Beyond more obvious moments like slow motion for tension (and I'll draw a careful distinction between using the ponderous to convey pondering and baser tricks) there's been a huge effort here. Multiple countries, multiple languages, multiple qualifying pathways, there's a wealth here that has been distilled ably.

That word 'wealth' though becomes part of the difficulty - there are entrants from rural Brazil, from Germany, from New Jersey. There's talk that after the event, "maybe doors will open," but sometimes the stakes aren't quite made clear enough. The overall winner takes home a significant prize, but a later caption that puts that in an additional context that for non-American audiences probably needs further additional context - suffice to say you're probably more justified in using this film as an excuse to look up tertiary education costs globally than after watching Vampire Clay. That prep school earnestness could have been present, but there are no Tracy Flicks here, and, most importantly - no Jim McAllisters either.

There's a refreshing lack of cynicism here, and there's genuine pride among the adult supporters. This is tough competition, and while I might wonder about the costs of a week-long event in LA I also recognise that the grand prize is named after someone with an eponymous Law. My general rule for documentary is an interesting subject presented in an interesting way, and while Science Fair's narrative is born of its parent competition and editing that only sometimes strays towards the editorial, as a film (if not as a piece of film-making) it clearly hopes to entertain and educate, and does so with practical effect.

*yes, gymnasiums - perhaps the Latin department is underfunded too.

Reviewed on: 21 Jun 2018
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Nine high school students from around the globe navigate rivalries, setbacks, and of course, hormones, on their journey to compete at the international science fair.
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Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster

Year: 2018

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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