'The Science Fair' Movie Is a Fun & Inspiring Documentary for Any Kid

The feel-good documentary, Science Fair, follows a select group of STEM genius hopefuls from disparate corners of the globe as they navigate rivalries, setbacks, and hormones on their quest to win the international science fair. As 1,700 of the smartest, quirkiest teens from 78 different countries face off at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), only one will be named Best in Fair.

The stakes are high – the winner of the best overall project stands to collect $75,000 and a whole lot of recognition, which is immensely invaluable to kids who are either bullied or invisible at school. Not only that, the champion can expect scholarships and maybe even launch their lucrative career. Of course, not everyone can go home a winner and these super-kids get ultra competitive over the months that lead up to the big showdown.

There’s a lot of nuance behind the scenes of DuPont Award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaking team Cristina Costantini (herself a former ISEF participant) and Darren Foster’s intimate character study, showing how children can indeed make the world a better place. These youngsters really and truly care about making a difference through progress, science, and innovation. (Though winning is pretty cool, too – the opening sequence shows 2012 footage of high school freshman Jack Andraka going completely to pieces when his name is called for the prestigious Gordon E. Moore Award – his endearing reaction sums up what a big deal ISEF is to those who compete.)

Students have a mere six minutes to present their projects to a group of judges in their specialty area and winners will be determined in each category before an overall grand prize recipient is selected… the ending is full of real-life suspense (though not quite as nail-biting as in the spelling bee doc, Spellbound).

Although the movie is made in the U.S.A., the filmmakers joyously acknowledge the fact that ISEF attracts participants from 78 countries, and along with kids from middle-America, we meet a girl from Brazil who’s come up with a possible inoculation for the Zika virus and a whiz kid from Germany who created a single-wing aircraft design.

The kids are each interesting in their own right. Robbie, an indoorsy teenager who wears vintage Hawaiian shirts (“It’s the closest thing to casual wear with a collar,” he says.) creates an algorithm to analyze all of Kanye West’s lyrics and teach his computer how to rap. Kashfia, a quiet and pensive midwestern Muslim child of Bangladeshi immigrants, convinces the football coach of her sports-mad high school to sponsor her, which is nothing short of amazing when we get a tour of the Brookings, South Dakota campus, an institution that celebrates athletes with displays of trophies and ribbons… while completely ignoring its mathletes. Her project explores the cognitive effects of risky behaviors on the adolescent brain. There’s also an adult or two who make the cut – for instance, we meet Dr. McCalla, a science research teacher from Long Island, who transforms her class of young immigrants into one of the best science fair teams in the world.

Science Fair falls somewhere between an episode of Big Bang Theory and Mad Hot Ballroom – entertaining, often funny, sometimes awkward, and always educational. While it may be a bit too drawn-out to hold the undivided interest of most young viewers, it does offer a beacon of hope and great validation to nerds and geeks everywhere. (And if your kids do enjoy this, maybe now’s the time to introduce them to Square Pegs or Freaks and Geeks!)

Visit Common Sense Media for more info on this movie’s appropriateness for your child.

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