Thursday, November 1, 2018

film review: Science Fair

Directed by: Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster
Written by:  Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster and Jeff Plunkett

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

It's a good idea for a documentary: follow nine bright high school students from the States as well as Brazil and Germany as they build innovative science projects to compete at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in L.A. This Superbowl of science pits 1,700 of the smartest teens from 78 countries to battle for the US$75,000 top prize.

Co-director Cristina Costantini knows first-hand what these science geeks are feeling: she herself is a two-time alumna of ISEF. Costantini and her team deftly capture the personalities who star in this film. The most engaging is Anjali (above), a 13-year-old child prodigy from Louisville, Kentucky, who's built an arsenic-testing device that could save millions of lives. Anjali is confident, articulate, but also nervous at competition time. She wins us over instantly.

In contrast, Kashfia is a shy Muslim girl, estranged at a sports-mad high school in Brookings, South Dakota, where nobody knows she's a science whiz. It's unsettling when she explains how she acts extra-nice to strangers to protect herself in this whitebread town just because she wears a hijab.

Myllena is part of a duo from Brazil where the deadly Zika virus has hit her impoverished hometown. Unlike kids in North America and Europe, Brazil's students lack adequate funding for education, never mind the sciences. In a touching moment, her teachers weep as they hope Myllena's success attracts more attention--and money--to science in their schools. Of all the characters in Science Fair, Myllena is the number-one underdog you cheer for.

Over in Germany, Ivo is a friendly, gangly boy who inherited his love of flying from his father. Ivo has taken a century-old single-wing design that today's engineers discredit and has, well, made it fly. Like Myllena, Ivo is excited over his first trip to America.

The film's adult voice is Dr. Serena McCalla, a driven research teacher from Long Island who's coached several immigrant kids to become one of the world's most formidable science teams. She voices the film's central message: support future scientists.

You can't help but cheer these characters, all of them underdogs in their own ways, pursuing a higher cause. After all, they're kids, bursting with optimism and naivete, and struggling to fit in with their peers. But there are too many characters in the film to follow, in particular the American ones whose characteristics overlap and whose lives lack real stakes. The film is too American-centric. I wanted to see more of Myllena who faces the greatest obstacles (poor, doesn't speak English fluently) and is a foreigner competing against the rich Americans on their home turf.

[spoiler alert:] Probably because of access restrictions, the filmmakers couldn't access the actual judging process. The film builds to this very moment, but it never happens. Pity.

Overall, though, Science Fair deserves a good grade.

Science Fair opens Nov. 2 in Toronto, Nov. 9 in Montreal and throughout the fall in other cities.

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