National Geographic Documentary Series
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster
Screenwriter: Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett, Cristina Costantini
Cast: Kashfia, Myllena, Gabriel, Robbie, Ryan, Harsha, Abraham, Anjali, Ivo, Dr. Serena McCalla
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 8/30/18
Opens: September 14, 2018
There’s the old expression, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “Practice, practice, practice.” As for practicing in all areas, the same could be said for basketball or learning Sanskrit or weaving underwater baskets. But the sad truth is that there is a limit to what most of us can do even with eight hours’ practice daily for years. You must also have talent, because if practice were the only thing required, everyone on every high-school basketball team would become Michael Jordan and everyone in a high school chess club would be Bobby Fischer.
That’s where “Science Fair” comes in. Cristina Costantini, who co-directs and serves as a co-writer has previously done a doc about death by fentanyl while co-writer and co-director Darren Foster has co-directed “Inside Secret America,” about underground networks. “Science Fair” soars above Costantini and Foster’s previous works, winning the Sundance Audience Choice award and capturing the passions of high-school students worldwide who have not only (presumably) practiced their projects but were obviously born with superior mental capacities.
Now we have an administration in Washington that is anti-science, that denies climate change, believes that evolution is just one opinion among many. This makes it an even greater pleasure to see movies like “Science Fair.” This is not say that literature and history, music and art should be merely electives in high school and college, but if we are going to make progress in fighting disease and improving people’s living standards, science and technology are where it’s at. Costantini and Foster look into how young men and women below the age of eighteen have been chosen to take part in the science fairs held in Los Angeles, about 1700 boys and girls in all, looking to “give back” to society for what has been given to them. Students interested in competing first go to local science fairs, then regionals, then to the big one where just one person will win $75,000 while the others will have their chances of getting into a good college boosted by their participation in the science competition.
The directors must have taken hundreds of hours of film before whittling the story down to ninety minutes since they focus throughout on the people who have “made it,” who have won or placed or show or perhaps climbed the ladder from the local contests to be invited to the L.A. affair. In one sense, “Science Fair” is a thriller: we in the audience get a fair idea of what these folks’ projects are like and take guesses as to who will win at least a fourth-place award in several categories of science. The winner’s name will not be divulged here lest the review be considered a spoiler.
From what we see only one teacher is involved in the travels to L.A.. Dr. Serena McCalla Ph.D. works fifteen-hour days with researchers from Jericho High School in New York’s Long Island, apparently one of the best schools in the state; and interestingly most of her prize students speak English as a second language. They are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who have come to the U.S. for opportunities and stand out as models of the importance of immigration to our country’s progress. Here are some of the bright people:
Anjali goes to a school that’s at least as prestigious as Jericho High. In Louisville, Kentucky, Anjali scored a perfect 36 on the American College Test which determines one’s readiness for college. And she did this at the age of 13. She is giving back to society with an arsenic testing device that could save lives by warning people against drinking water with dangerous levels of the poison. Ivo, who went to L.A. from a small town in Germany, works on improving aeronautics. Another impressive duo of small-towners, Myllena and Gabriel, go to LA. From Ceará, a poor state in Brazil, finding a way to stop the spread of Zika, which had infested their area. Kashfia, a Muslim girl who wears a hijab and who had never attended a party in high school, visits the coast from Brookings, South Dakota. Having found no mentor in the science department, she teams up with the football coach, of all people, and where her accomplishments in science were ignored by her school’s faculty and administration. (We’re free to guess why.)
These people speak freely of their dreams and of their projects, some talk filled with jargon as befits those who research obscure factors. Peter Alton behind the lenses takes in the big fair in L.A. but has also traveled to faraway places with strange-sounding names, contrasting the poverty of Northeast Brazil with the glitz of Los Angeles; visiting high schools in areas that some snobs call flyover country to accentuate the talent in small towns, focusing on high schools with presumably less-than-adequate facilities. If there’s one scene that’s more impressive than any others, it’s the look at hundreds of kids partying-down, acting like completely normal teens, bouncing about the dance floor as though they were a non-selective cross-section of the world. Some of us will come away with the sad fact that we are just ordinary people, not the best and the brightest, hopefully coming to terms about this existential fact. C’est la vie.
90 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Overall – B+