The room, packed with hundreds upon thousands of young people, is electric with energy and excitement – to the point that even the Wave breaks out. Confetti cannons are at the ready, and when the night’s big moment arrives, there’s screams – one lucky kid can’t stop screaming, and at several octaves higher than the human ear should normally detect.
It’s like a rock concert – except everybody in attendance is eager to talk to you about arsenic levels in drinking water, their new behavioral sciences research or the latest breakthroughs in stethoscope technology.
Welcome to the world of "Science Fair," the delightful and joyous new documentary that opened the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival Thursday night at the Oriental Theatre, a movie of such brilliant enthusiasm for science and its young geniuses that it almost makes group projects seem fun. Almost.
Serving as "Spellbound" for STEM students, Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s doc tags along with almost a dozen students and teachers from across the globe and across all walks of life, spraining their brains and gluing together monolithic poster board displays of dense jargon with one goal in mind: to win a ticket to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) – and then hopefully win the whole thing.
We’re a long way from baking soda volcanos too. One young student builds an arsenic-filtering device to help global communities where the local water supply’s levels are above acceptable amounts, hoping to not cure cancer in the process but prevent it. Another brainiac researches century-old airplane technology to not only update it to modern times but to make it the cutting edge of aerodynamics. One team turns a half-baked meat thermometer idea into a new breed of stethoscope, while another duo from Brazil attempts to develop a cure for Zika. And one kid creates a computer A.I. that can create its own rap lyrics, as inspired by Kanye West. (If the program were to drop a mixtape, it’d probably be better than "Ye" too.)
The kids are not just incredibly bright, but beamingly charming and radiant as well, while still battling their own issues outside simply mastering their presentations. The Brazilian duo’s inspiration for a Zika cure comes from their poor town’s battle with the devastating virus. Another can’t stop debating whether or not college is his next step – maybe a moot point since his grades might not be good enough despite his obvious intelligence.
One young South Dakota teen presses forward with her work despite her school putting all its attention on its winless football team rather than cede any spotlight to her – to the point that her teacher supervisor is the encouraging if utterly clueless football coach.
But even while assembling presentations worthy of their grey-haired peers, they’re still just kids excited about going to a dance, staying out too late on prom night, blasting trap music (and classical music … OK, pretty much just trap) and just wanting to fit in.
One teacher notes that the science fair fiends have a "healthy recklessness" that fuels them eager to take on scientific challenges their adult counterparts may view impossible – and Costantini and Foster apply that same admirably reckless enthusiasm to gathering subjects. "Science Fair" spends seemingly half its running time pinballing across the globe, assembling and introducing contender after contender after contender to the point that the audience wonders if they’ll ever make it to the actual fair.
It’s hard to blame the two, however, considering how fascinating and charming each character and quest becomes as soon as they hit the screen. (The most bland is perhaps a young German aerodynamics expert, but even his story is an interesting look at how the European country views education versus the United States.) The excitement, awe-inspired respect and optimism the filmmakers have for each of their young subjects, and that each of them in turn has for their impressive and potentially world-changing work, is giddily infectious. Science has rarely been this smile-inducing or flat-out funny.
Eventually, "Science Fair" does indeed make it to the main event, and even with almost a dozen characters to juggle, the directing duo makes the viewer care about each one and feel the drama build and the tension escalate like a bottle rocket ready to blow. One boldly confident young teen girl suddenly falls sick the day of the presentation. A group faces questions about their research’s validity, while the Brazilian team’s translator seems to be a no-show on game day.
Even though we don’t see much, if anything, of the final presentations due to access, we’re deeply invested in what happens to these characters, the kind of movie where you can’t wait to see the final pre-credits titles to make sure they’re all still doing OK – a credit to Costantini and Foster’s generous spirit and storytelling.
Sure, the filmmaking in "Science Fair" isn’t nearly as innovative or groundbreaking as the science percolating in its subjects’ heads. But for 90 minutes, it transports the audience to a blissful future of hope, joy and unbridled enthusiasm for science and education. And in 2018, that merits first prize consideration.
"Science Fair": ***1/2 out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.