The top prize is announced at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and then-15-year-old Jack Andraka learns that he won for his work on the early detection of pancreatic cancer. It is beautiful, shocking, hilarious pandemonium.
His Bieberesque mop of brown hair billows as he explodes out of his seat like a Jack-in-the-box, his limbs extending into a perfect star shape, each extremity perhaps stretched even longer by his euphoria.
What follows is a full-body emotional meltdown. His face contorts as if altered by Edvard Munch. He runs down the aisle to claim his prize. No, not runs. Skips. Flits? Floats? His hands curl in fists as he unconsciously pumps his arms with each step, flapping as if trying to take flight—the only possible physical reaction befitting the sheer amount of joy the teenage genius feels.
Jack Andraka is a superstar in his own right, one of many we meet in the documentary Science Fair, which is in theaters now. As Jack’s win in the opening scene proves—you can watch it in the trailer below—it is perhaps one of the most surprisingly funny films released this year. (To wit, it took home the audience prize at both the Sundance and SXSW Film Festivals.)
Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, the National Geographic Films documentary shadows a handful of the most intelligent young scientists, inventors, inquisitors, and experimenters in the world as they train for their Olympics: a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair. The result is like being a fly on the wall for the making of a Christopher Guest movie.
These are some of the most brilliant young minds in the world—the filmmakers follow students from American magnet schools, a village in rural Brazil, and an enterprising inventor from Germany. Their personalities, which you might not guess if you only remember the reserved science geeks tucked away in quiet corners of your own high school cafeteria, turn out to be as big as their minds.
“Teenagers have this amazing quality of figuring out who they are in real-time, but then science fair kids have a whole different quality, which is they’re brilliant,” Costantini says. “They’re going to be the scientific leaders of tomorrow, but they’re also just teenagers.”
There’s Harsha, a senior at Kentucky’s duPont Manual High School, a magnet school known for its STEM program. He’s the drill-and-kill taskmaster for his group project with friends Ryan and Abraham. In one scene, he’s berating them to be more prepared for their presentation. In the next, he’s in the car blasting trap music. “Harsha only listens to trap music, which I didn’t see coming,” Ryan laughs. When we see the trio on the plane to Los Angeles for ISEF, Ryan and Abraham are passed out and miserable; their prom was the night before.
Their classmate Anjali is a prodigy in her own right, who speaks with the plucky, unapologetic confidence of a member of the YouTube generation. Whether she’s throwing shade at the size of one of her trophies, speaking truth to the gender bias that comes with her success and aptitude, or navigating the politics of science fair competitions with blazer-wearing certitude, she’s a trip.
Robbie, who goes to a small high school in West Virginia, is a math genius who scavenges junkyard to build the computers from which he writes revolutionary algorithms. But nothing about his personality reflects the typical science fair student, or even a student who fits into the traditional academic framework. There’s his bright-color, bold-pattern wardrobe of flashy button-up shirts, or the fact that he’s nearly failed out of high school despite his irrefutable smarts. His hope is that a win at ISEF could help his poor college prospects, due to his grades.
And halfway around the world there’s Myllena and Gabriel, who live in one of the poorest states in Brazil and whose research is inspired by their desire to do something to stave off the health crisis ravaging their community, by identifying a protein that could inhibit the spread of Zika. Attending ISEF means the trip of a lifetime from Brazil to Los Angeles, but also a platform to perhaps escape the poverty of their hometown, as well as save lives.
“I think there’s a temptation sometimes when you’re making a film about science to make these kids seem superhuman,” says Foster. “Obviously they have some brilliance to them, but at the end of the day, they’re just teenagers.”
Science Fair is a personal project for Costantini. A self-proclaimed “dweeby kid growing up in a sports-obsessed high school in Wisconsin,” it wasn’t until she competed herself at the ISEF in 2004 that she felt like she had found her tribe. “I was finally validated for my ideas,” she says. “At a young age, that was really important. It really changed who I was.”
The sense of ISEF as a haven is one of Science Fair’s most endearing threads, illustrating the transformative power of gathering misfits in a shared space of understanding and appreciation. In the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer film, the misfits saved Christmas. In Science Fair, they may just save the world.
You see this most poignantly through the story of Kashfia. She is the only Muslim girl at her sports-obsessed high school in Brookings, South Dakota. There is no science program to speak of; she has to ask the school’s football coach to serve as her science fair mentor. His blank, silent stare as she explains her project to him speaks volumes. She’s placed at international science fairs before, and didn’t get so much as an announcement about her success at her school. (Light spoiler here…) When she scores a major prize at the end of the film, her victory goes unmentioned again.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Costantini says. “It’s not just South Dakota, and I’m sure it’s not out of malice. They just don’t know what a big deal this is. I think our priorities as a nation, especially right now, need some help.” Those priorities provide the crucial, though largely unspoken backdrop to the movie, italicizing, for all of its fun and the adorableness of these kids, its resonance and, hopefully, its impact—the “why we need this movie now” of it all.
These are kids picking up the mantle of science at a time when there’s a palpable feeling that our country, or at least under this administration, is turning its back on science. More, state budgets for science fairs are being slashed in certain parts of the country and at risk in others, meaning the necessary platform for fostering these kids’ interest in and enthusiasm for science might disappear, and with it the innovation and intelligence capital the future of our country needs.
Costantini and Foster struggled with how to address all that in a film like this. “We decided, let’s not saddle these kids with all these political arguments,” Foster says. “Let’s just let these kids be who they are and stand in relief to what’s going on in the country.”
And those kids do stand in stark relief, along with the many superhero STEM women profiled, or the charges of magnetic Long Island teacher Dr. Serena McCalla, who sent nine of her young immigrant students to ISEF, most of whom speak English as a second language.
“It’s hard to do a movie about science and the science fair in America without addressing the contributions of immigrants,” Foster says. “It’s impossible to do it without talking about the contributions of women. It’s also impossible to look at this moment in time and not see how science has slipped as a national priority, especially compared to the time when the science fair first started in this country, which was in World War II, and then in the ’50s and ’60s when we were facing these huge global challenges and we turned to science for answers. Now we live in a political environment where science is undermined and questioned for political gain. All these things came out during the making of the film.”
But the film’s beautiful, beating heart is these kids. What was it like, then, to follow them for so long, from their hometowns all across the world to the awards ceremony at ISEF, where a handful of them took home prizes for their hard work?
“I was weeping,” Costantini laughs. “During the awards ceremony I was roaming around trying to get shots with the camera,” Foster says. “My eyepiece was fogging up a bit…”
Emotion is one thing. But what about the science? Since it might be a question of concern to prospective viewers, we asked the filmmakers themselves: Did you actually understand the kids’ science experiments? They answer in unison, and with a humble chuckle: “No!”