Science Fair: The Cool Kids, by David Bax
Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s Science Fair has more than just its basic structure in common with Spellbound, the directors’ most obvious source of inspiration. It’s also, like Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 spelling bee documentary, earnest to the point of being endearingly corny (except for the part at the beginning where the history of the science fair is delivered via old-timey announcer voice, which is more annoyingly corny). That lack of irony is absolutely the correct choice for a film whose subject matter is both thoroughly wholesome and—somehow, in these confounding times—radically divisive.
Science Fair follows high school hopefuls in the months leading up to the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), an incredibly competitive annual event that rewards prizes to only a lucky few of the thousands who qualify out of the millions who apply. From the students of a well-funded, science-focused powerhouse school on Long Island to a Muslim girl in small town South Dakota to teens in rural Brazil whose school is so poorly funded, they must rely on the equipment of the nearest hospital, which charitably affords them access, all of these kids and more believe they have ideas that will change the world. Even more impressive, many of them are right.
As inspirational and even charming, in their way, as these kids are, perhaps it is adults who are Science Fair’s most ideal audience. The only thing that hinder these kids’ brilliant, elastic minds is a lack of resources, encouragement and support from the adult world that dictates their lives. On the large stage, that means many more schools ought to be as well-funded and as proud of their science departments as that Long Island one. But, on a smaller, more personal and far more achievable level, that means more of us should be like the football coach at that South Dakota school. Each student entering into the fair requires a faculty sponsor and when—for whatever, unimaginable reason—the science teachers at the school were unwilling, this coach stepped up. He has no scientific background and, most of the time, no clear understanding of what his sponsee’s project is all about. Yet he recognizes her talent and passion and knows that it needs to be supported.
Homespun inspiration like that is the stirring, tear-jerking engine of Science Fair. Yet Costantini and Foster are aware their subject matter also carries a political weight at a time when our federal government is under the control of those who seek who undermine or outright deny science (and, even worse, those who are willing to stand by and let that happen). Wisely, the directors avoid making this a focal point of their film, which may have been a temporarily galvanizing approach but an ultimately superficial one. Instead, the awareness exists as a constant undercurrent, only occasionally bubbling up when the Long Island science teacher makes accurate statements such as, “This country will fail if we give up on our scientists.”
Tomorrow’s scientists are today’s high school nerds and Science Fair is a celebration of all things nerdy, including the healthy restlessness that makes some come across as socially awkward and, therefore, less than “cool.” But, as long as we adults don’t stop them, these kids will literally save us all. What’s cooler than that?