Science Fair

 

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A documentary rather less individual than the title might suggest.

 
science fair
  

In one sense - but only in one sense - this is a documentary that breaks new ground. It does so by being concerned with ISEF, an event established back in 1942 that takes place annually in Los Angeles. ISEF   stands for International Science and Engineering Fair. Here teenage applicants promoting their own research programmes and inventions compete after having first earned the right to have their names put forward as finalists through assessments in their local schools. From health projects to technological innovations ISEF covers in all no less than 22 categories and in 2017 - the year when Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster made this film - the participants numbered 1700 youngsters from 78 countries fighting for the four places in each of the categories as decided by the interrogating judges.

 

It is the nature of the competition that makes Science Fair an unusual documentary, but Costantini and Foster recognised from the outset that their film would follow a well-trodden path in introducing viewers to a number of potential contestants (in this case nine), showing their endeavours in seeking to be allowed to go forward to ISEF and then following them to Los Angeles for the event itself and the revelation of which of the nine are winners and which have to make do with the honour of competing. That has become a standard format and the publicity for Science Fair acknowledges that the filmmakers had in mind such admired pieces as Spellbound (2002) and Mad Hot Ballroom (2005).

 

Some critics seem to underestimate documentaries that follow a set pattern, but I think that if they really work they deserve full credit. However, if one compares Science Fair with the titles mentioned above, or indeed with other fine pieces such as Sounds Like Team Spirit (2008) which looked at Junior Eurovision, a weak spot immediately becomes apparent. When the competitive event involves singing, dancing or a spelling bee, the final round or rounds provide a climactic tension linked to scenes that entertain in their own right. But at ISEF the judging goes on behind closed doors and thus this key step in the proceedings is out of reach of the camera. Costantini and Foster attempt to bridge the gap with odds and ends including present-day footage of early winners but, while that has its own appeal, it can't conceal the hiatus in the film just when the audience really wants to know the results. Science Fair also suffers from a music score that loves to keep throbbing even doing so over interviews at times and things are always better when it shuts up.

 

Nevertheless, these weaknesses do not prevent the film from introducing us to a range of contrasting youngsters very different from one another in character and background (the two top winners prove to be especially appealing) and there is also much footage devoted to an inspiring teacher, Dr. Serena McCalla. Consequently, there is much to please in Science Fair even if it can't be regarded as being itself at the top of its class.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Anjali Chadha, Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu, Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, Kashfia Rahman, Ivo Zell, Robbie Barrat, Myllena Braz de Silva, Gabriel de Moura Martins, Serena McCalla, Jack Andraka.

 

Dir Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, Pro Cristina Costantini, Darren Foster and Jeffrey Plunkett, Screenplay Cristina Constantini, Darren Foster and Jeffrey Plunkett, Ph Peter Alton, Ed Ed Maroney and Alejandro Valdes-Rochia, Music Jeff Morrow.

 

National Geographic Documentary Films/A Univision Production/Muck Media-Dogwoof.
90 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 19 October 2018. Cert. 12A.