Science documentaries face a real challenge when it comes to drawing in an audience that isn’t already committed to caring about science. Finding new ways to say “You should really go see this, it’s not just about science” is often a struggle.
Science Fair is a rare entry in the category because its human elements are so obvious. Teamwork, competition, obstacles to be overcome, and the ultimate high-stakes denouement. Humanity’s at the forefront so often that it’s easy to forget that the film is about science. In fact, all of the basic human issues nearly obscure what the movie’s really about: teenagers on the edge of adulthood struggling through a world that often doesn’t know what to do with them, yet they find their people—the kindred spirits they can finally feel at home with.
The movie is funny, emotional, and touching, with a universal theme that just happens to have science as a background. And it’s really, really good.
The science fairs of my youth often featured kids struggled to come up with displays that actually did something, like baking-soda-powered volcanoes. But the competition at the center of Science Fair—the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair—is closer to things I did as a graduate student. The experiments are far too complex and require far too much replication to ever make sense doing in front of an audience. Instead, the data’s all analyzed and laid out on a poster, and the experimenter(s) talk people through the details.
If the kids are successful at regional competitions, they earn the right to go to the finals. That week-long competition is judged by scientists and draws competitors from dozens of countries. It’s a bit like a science olympiad with the exception that, in addition to awarding winners and placers in various disciplines, a single research project is named the overall winner each year.
How do you get a high school kid doing graduate level science? There’s no one path to that, and that’s one of the things the film makes clear by following a variety of students in the lead up to one year’s competition.
The filmmakers behind Science Fair have chosen their subjects brilliantly. There’s the remarkably mature over-achiever, two years younger than her classmates, who’s just learning her first inklings of humility (in part by losing in these competitions). There’s a Brazilian team from a community that still has dirt roads and whose teachers cry as they think of the doors that success at the competition would open. And there’s the articulate goofball whose parents watch in bemusement as he nearly flunks trigonometry because he’s distracted by number theory, which he’s been teaching himself.
Adults also play an active role.
We spend time with the PhD-holding daughter of African immigrants who serves as the hyper-demanding den mother to a large high school that regularly sends a half-dozen teams to the final. And a South Dakota high school football coach who ends up mentoring one of the students—not because he understands her research but simply because he’s willing to push her when her school’s science teachers lose interest. (That disinterest is nearly school-wide: her fellow students don’t even know she exists, despite her success in past years.)
Nearly every one of these characters (and many others I’ve not mentioned) is fascinating and could probably be the subject of a short film on their own. But the film’s real impact comes from the picture that these characters are used to paint.
It’s probably an overstatement to say that Science Fair humanizes scientists. These kids are as obsessive and quirky as a top-level athlete. But despite their quirkiness, the students form teams, support each other, get excited about each others’ projects, and go to parties and form crushes once they all get together in one place for the final competition. For so many of them, coming from schools that don’t know what to do with their brains and drive, this is probably the first time they really feel like they’re among their peers, and it briefly makes the Intel International Science Fair seem secondary.
Most importantly, though, Science Fair makes clear that its subjects are humane, working on things like simple testing for arsenic in water, a defense against Zika virus, or a better understanding of at-risk teens. And, in making that point, the movie drives home why science is so important and deserves to be valued more than it is by people other than the ones obsessed by it.