Friday, September 14, 2018

Nate Hood goes to the Science Fair (2018)

If on the night of the 91st Academy Awards ceremony, directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster walk onstage the Dolby Theatre and accept the Oscar for Best Documentary, it will hardly be a surprise. Their new film Science Fair is exactly the kind of crowd-pleasing, heart-warming story Academy voters are instinctively drawn to during years when the ballot isn’t stacked with true crime exposés.

Following the fortunes of a number of plucky young people competing in the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—referred to as “the Olympics of science fairs”—it’s an inspirational story designed for soaring musical swells and tear-jerking postscripts.

Understand, none of this is to the film’s detriment: it’s very, very good at getting the audience heavily invested in the stories of these various kids. There’s the headstrong genius-level fourteen-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky with a new sensor for detecting arsenic levels in drinking water who inexplicably keeps losing during national competitions; there’s the duo from a desperately poor city in Brazil who’ve developed new techniques for detecting the Zika virus that’s ravaged their community; there’s the programmer wunderkind from nowhere West Virginia who taught his school calculator to generate Shakespearean insults and his computer Kanye West lyrics through a home-grown neural network; there’s the team of immigrant Chinese students in New York state marshaled by their loving yet imperious science teacher, herself the child of Caribbean immigrants; and there’s the shy hijabi from South Dakota who wants to develop technology to figure out why so many of her classmates descend into alcoholism and drug abuse. The methods with which they and their stories are presented are intimately familiar to anyone whose ever watched an episode of American Idol, Top Chef, or, heaven help you, American Ninja Warrior: interviews in their native trailer parks or favelas; their preparations for the Big Day; their eventual success or failure. It's tried and true and predictable.

The film's true virtue, then, is its tireless sense of optimism, both in science as a means for fostering international cooperation and for inculcating self-confidence and self-agency among young people from disenfranchised backgrounds. Watching the film, it's obvious which subject will win Best in Show (hint: it's the one seemingly added as an afterthought), but for a moment we truly believe that all these young people are winners in their own way, for themselves, their countries, and our species' future. And the winner's envelope please...

Rating: 7/10

Science Fair opens in select theaters today. It also plays at the Camden International FIlm Festival this weekend.

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