The kiddie-competition genre pioneered by “Spellbound” (2002) is a foolproof documentary pleasure. Take a bunch of earnest and gifted young people, provide background on their lives and hopes, enlist them in a contest, and get us to both root for a winner and ponder what “winning” means. Certainly the beautiful adolescent minds we meet in “Science Fair” are all worthy of attention and reward. Why does one have to be singled out as “best”? Is that how life works or just America?
The movie, produced by the National Geographic Channel but rolling out to theaters before it comes to TV, is an absolute treat that may have you weeping with empathy for the boys and girls whose lives it depicts. The annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) pulls students and projects from around the globe, but it has US roots that go back to World War II — we meet the still-surviving first winner, Dr. Paul Teschan — and the event is almost always held in this country. For the 2017 fair, filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster cast a wide net, both in America and abroad, to give us a representative sample of the entrants.
Most refreshingly, “Science Fair” illustrates the many different kinds of STEM students out there. A girl like Anjali, from a high school in Louisville, Ky., can be an ambitious type-A with a gawky, endearing arrogant streak, while her schoolmates Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham happily muddy distinctions between nerds and bros, with Ryan a gifted programmer who comes off as a surfer dude and Harsha a hard-studying son of immigrants who loves trap music.
Their school has a dedicated science program, as does the Jericho, N.Y., high school from which the tireless Dr. Serena McCall sends out team after dominating team. But what are we to make of the football-crazy school in Brookings, S.D., that has three gyms and no science lab, and where Kashfiya, a shy Muslim girl, came in third at ISEF her freshman year and the school made no announcement about it. (Most of her peers don’t even know who she is; “We really have one of those people here?” one asks when informed by the filmmakers.)
Kashfiya’s project for the 2017 fair is studying adolescent risk behaviors — drinking and taking drugs — by looking at brain waves. Anjali has developed a sensor to detect arsenic in drinking water. Ivo, from a small town in Germany, has built a flying wing. One of the most heartening teams comes from a poverty-ridden village in rural Brazil: Myllena and Gabriel are working to develop a medication that stops the spread of the Zika virus that has hit their corner of the country especially hard. Myllena’s father is a farmhand, her mother a maid; one of her teachers despairs over the limited local options: “Most of our students are like a plant inside an apartment.” You can see the horizon start to grow in Myllena’s eyes.
The one I found myself rooting for most strongly was Robbie, from West Virginia, if only because he seems the kind of disorganized natural genius that schools and structured programs can often fail. He gets middling grades, he’s kind of a wiseass, yet Robbie’s interest in “machine creativity” has led him to reprogram his class math calculator to spit out Shakespearean insults and create a neural network that writes new Kanye West lyrics.
You want them all to succeed, and “Science Fair” adroitly leads us through the preparations, the travel, the arrival at the Los Angeles Convention Center. We see the kids survive a first-night social mixer (“the better you are at Science Fair, the worse you are at dancing” is the generally accepted rule), we learn about the semiotics of presentation booths and display boards, we come to fear the arrival of the dreaded Scientific Review Committee, with its power to disqualify entrants.
The breadth and depth of the projects is at times awe-inspiring, with titles like Silk Torsional Actuators: Automatic Moisture-Activated Emergency Locator for Aircraft Life Vests and Spin-Orbit Coupling Induced Heterogeneous Excited-State Dynamics in 6-Coordinate Transition Metal Protodyes. It’s all right if the only words you understood in that last one are “in” and “metal.”
By the time the winners are announced, you’re emotionally invested in everyone, so “Science Fair” is quite a ride. Co-directors Costantini and Foster handle the suspense well and juggle the large cast so efficiently that it almost seems churlish to voice a suspicion that they may have been as surprised as us by the eventual winner of the fair’s top prize, the Gordon E. Moore Award, and gone back to film that winner’s story and subsequently restitch the footage into their chronology.
As I said, a suspicion, and, if true, an indication of how much filmmakers and audiences prefer a smooth narrative structure imposed on the messiness of life. In all other regards, “Science Fair” says things worth heeding about aspiration and innovation, immigrant strivers and academic opportunities, where boys and girls today can go and why we should encourage and support them. It’s a movie that traffics in a rare commodity: hope for the future.
Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster. Written by Costantini, Foster, and Jeff Plunkett. At Regal Fenway. 90 minutes. PG (some thematic elements, brief language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.