It’s comic, at times, how little science there is in Science Fair, Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s breezily compelling documentary about high school students competing in just what the title promises. The film dishes up quick, day-brightening character studies of young geniuses from the United States and around the world, all qualifying competitors in the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair. Meet the imperturbable Kashfia, returning to ISEF glory for her second year despite no science teachers willing to sponsor her in her small-town South Dakota school. (The coach of the school’s failing football team helps out.) Her classmates, we see in a painful montage, know nothing of her achievements or even, really, who she is.
The filmmakers cue viewers to feel some pride that, by contrast, we know Kashfia. But as they flatter you, maybe ask yourself this: What exactly is her project again? Science Fair offers only cursory accounts of what the young minds it cheers are actually thinking about. Myllena, from an impoverished village in the northeast of Brazil, has conducted some research involving treatment of the Zika virus that has swept her country, but Science Fair spends less time on that than it does what clothes she’s packing for her trip to Los Angeles, home of the 2017 competition. One exception is the project cooked up by gangly German teen Ivo: He built a fuel-efficient model airplane that radically improved on the long-disfavored “flying wing” design. The filmmakers don’t give him a breath to discuss the nature of his insight or the aeronautic principles at work, but you better believe they have a camera on a drone to show us the final product zipping about the sky.
Here we have a jubilant doc championing the cause of science but also committed to sparing us exposure to it. The filmmakers even make a joke of it. One eager boy speaks the long, complex name of his project right into the camera and then, with sheepish hopefulness, asks if he can explain it. Science Fair cuts away, timing it like a punchline, as if to say, Please don’t, you adorable genius!
Science Fair has been engineered to please crowds, and at that it’s a rousing success. Its competition narrative offers built-in suspense, even if we have no real grasp on whose work truly meets the judges’ criteria. The cameras aren’t even there when the kids officially present their projects, but the filmmakers still wring the big day for all the drama they can, putting off as long as possible the revelation of whether any of their subjects win. But it's hard not to be charmed by the gently funny depiction of the milieu. “The better you are at science fair, the worse you are at dancing,” one finalist observes at a mixer. Better still are those fleet, compelling character studies of students and teachers it’s a pleasure to discover.
Chief among these is Serena McCalla, a teacher with lovingly sharp elbows — and an unflagging passion — at Long Island’s Jericho High School, where she enjoys a gobsmacking success rate with science fair students. Or the savvy chatterbox Anjali, a master at public speaking at the age of 14, who partially attributes her run of science fair wins to her skill at quickly communicating complex ideas. Both women understand the science and how to present it. I only wish the film in which they dazzle allowed its stars to do more of the latter.