Science Fair is a documentary about high school students competing in last year's International Science and Engineering Fair, and it takes the classic Hoop Dreams/Spellbound approach to the material, introducing us to an appealing roster of characters, a mix of favorites and underdogs all chasing a dream.
Kashfia is a Muslim girl in a South Dakota school that favors football over science – shy among her peers, assertive and fully alive when talking about her brain-wave technology in science competitions.
Towering German nerd Uwe Zell (no relation to the guy in Marathon Man) took up his dad's model aircraft hobby, and resurrected a discarded WWII flying-wing concept that he perfected, making it not only aerodynamic but fuel-efficient.
A kid in West Virginia scavenges the local junkyard for discarded computer parts, and reassembles the components into a machine that runs AI software that produces machine-learning approximations of Kanye West lyrics.
In Brazil, two teens who see their poor community plagued by the Zika virus devise a strategy to use proteins to combat the disease once it enters the human body.
In Kentucky, three young men try to build a better stethoscope, and in New York state, a hard driving teacher/mentor pushes her students to excel, a thread that also serves to show how one second-generation immigrant goes out of her way to help others.
Sometimes these anecdotes show courageous and admirable striving, and a genuine love of science. Sometimes they show something less inspiring – the way systems can be gamed by competitors whose specialized knowledge of rules combine with tactics and strategies that give them an advantage, so what's being measured and honored is not always aptitude and innate genius.
It's unclear whether filmmakers Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster intend this to be the case, but they do make implied criticisms of the American education system, mostly by contrasting it with the way other countries, like Germany, make STEM a national priority.
The Germans also make it affordable. Young men like Zell can attend elite science academies for the equivalent of $1,800 a year.
The American kids, by contrast, often view the science competition as resume-building, an "avenue to open doors to major colleges," and scholarship money to pay for schools they cannot afford. Few can.
Intel sponsors the International Science and Engineering Fair (held last year in Los Angeles) and digs deep into its $62 billion corporate pocket — that would be last year's profits — to award the $75,000 top prize.
Enough to pay for freshman year.
Directed by Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster. Distributed by Nat Geo.
Run time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parents guide: PG
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse