It's comic, at times, how little science there is in Science Fair, Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster's breezily compelling documentary about high school students competing in just what the title promises. The film parades before us young geniuses from the U.S. and around the world, all qualifying competitors in the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair, dishing up quick, day-brightening character studies. Meet the imperturbable Kashfia, returning to ISEF glory for her second year despite no science teachers willing to sponsor her in her small-town South Dakota school. (The coach of the school's failing football team helps out.) Her classmates, we see in a painful montage, know nothing of her achievements or even, really, who she is.
The filmmakers cue viewers to feel some pride that, by contrast, we know Kashfia. But as they flatter you, maybe ask yourself this: What exactly is her project again? Science Fair offers only cursory accounts of what the young minds it cheers are actually thinking about. Myllena, from an impoverished village in the northeast of Brazil, has conducted some research involving treatment of the Zika virus that has swept her country, but Science Fair spends less time on that than it does what clothes she's packing for her trip to Los Angeles, home of the 2017 competition.
Science Fair has been engineered to please crowds, and at that it's a rousing success. Its competition narrative offers built-in suspense, even if we have no real grasp on whose work truly meets the judges' criteria. But it's hard not to be charmed by the gently funny depiction of the milieu or those fleet, compelling characters studies of students and teachers it's a pleasure to discover.
Cristina Costantini, Darren FosterNational Geographic Documentary Films