How did you spend high school? I spent it struggling to pass math and getting excited about the next Halo game. The kids featured in the new documentary Science Fair by National Geographic Documentary Films spend their teen years doing things like trying to cure disease, develop a 3D-printed stethoscope and redesign aircraft.
Science Fair, in theaters now, is a joyous movie showcasing the lives of students and one teacher as they fight their way to the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). It won the first ever Festival Favorite award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, as well as the audience choice award at SXSW.
It’s competitive. It’s cutthroat. And you’ll be smiling the entire time.
The 90-minute movie, directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, features a diverse bunch of overachieving kids, a few so entertaining they could helm their own TV show. Despite huge differences in their backgrounds, temperaments and research, all share a common goal: winning the $75,000 prize that comes with being named ISEF champion.
High school seniors Ryan, Harsha and Abraham from Kentucky are confident in their ability to perform under pressure as they take on the science fair circuit. Anjali, a 14-year-old sophomore at the same school, is so hilariously sure of herself, she points out she may sound arrogant.
Then there’s Myllena and Gabriel, a duo from a modest town in Brazil trying to cure the Zika virus with little support from their school, and Kashfia, a soft-spoken Muslim girl from South Dakota attending an school that doesn’t seem to value academic accomplishments nearly as much as its sports teams.
Myllena and Gabriel’s journey in particular is heart-wrenching, as they travel far from home to present their Zika research on the ISEF stage in Los Angeles. English isn’t their first language, making their struggle to impress the judges even more intense.
Meanwhile, Kashfia asks her school’s football coach to serve as her academic adviser, allowing her to place third during a previous ISEF competition. Her school apparently never announced her monumental achievement over the loudspeakers, and it’s easy to feel disappointed for her.
Then there’s Robbie, a prodigy from West Virginia who can build an algorithm that creates songs in the style of Kanye West yet can’t get good grades. He’s eccentric, funny and especially relatable to anyone who does their best work when facing a last-minute deadline.
And a big spotlight shines onto the absolutely powerful Serena McCalla, an academic force who lives, breathes and bleeds the ISEF competition, pushing her students at Jericho High School in New York to not just make it to ISEF but hopefully sweep it.
The stories are extraordinary, but the characters are easy to relate to. They’re inspiring, and they may make you wish you had the capacity to solve such complex problems when you were their young age.
Also, fascinatingly, none of the people showcased exhibit the stereotypical, awkward ‘nerdiness’ you might expect from a giant academic event like this. They’re just high achievers with big ideas, and those ideas might one day help save lives.
Once everyone makes it to ISEF, the film shows what a week there looks like: a cross between a giant science summer camp and an intense competition. For many of these kids, this is the very first time before college they’re living among a larger community of their peers, which is both fun and quite scary to see from their eyes. Some are ready to mingle, others aren’t sure about the best way to express themselves and a few have very little interest in attending the fair’s dance night.
It’s a lot to keep track of, for sure, but the film does a great job making the stories easy to follow and allowing viewers to empathize both with the students’ successes and setbacks. By the end of the movie’s 90-minute run, you’re left rooting (maybe even tearing up a little) in suspense as you wait to see which kids have won and which ones are going home only with fantastic memories.
Science Fair opened in New York on Sept. 14, and hit theaters nationwide on Sept. 28, with more US cities getting the film in October.