Ever heard of the International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF? It's the big fat international science fair that high-school-aged budding scientists from around the globe think about almost every waking minute, and documentarians Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster take a closer look at a number of kids from various countries who competed in 2017 in Science Fair.
On the one hand, it's fascinating to get a look at just how massive ISEF is and how many wildly impressive projects it spawns. On the other, however, it's mildly terrifying to get to know teenagers who subject themselves to such levels of work and stress and who think of little else. Costantini and Foster introduce us to youths from small-town American schools alongside their contemporaries from Brazil and Germany, and while we get a basic idea of their projects, their personalities, their teachers and parents, as well as the broad appeal of the fair, we don't get a clear idea of how it actually affects them save some late-film text scrolling about what they're up to today.
Take Robbie, a competitor fascinated by machine learning who taught a neural net to write rap songs based on the style of Kanye West. We know he struggles in school and nearly fails math in the time leading up to his ISEF appearance, but we never learn how he's actually feeling when he gets rejected from colleges aside from a few flippant and age-appropriate remarks. It's a similar story with young Ivo from Lorscht, Germany, who pioneers incredible aerodynamic tech but whom we never really get to know—they don't dig too deep into his project, either. The same can be said for the other kids, even if they're looking for fixes or improvements to issues like Zika, arsenic poisoning, the humble stethoscope and so on.
But it is strangely fun to peek into a world about which most know very little, and we'll definitely admit to reassessing how smart we thought we were. And anyway, it's probably important for these youngsters to have such, um, Type A personalities … y'know, for the good of humanity and all.
+Weirdly captivating; mostly fun
-We worry about these kids
Directed by Costantini and Foster
Center for Contemporary Arts, PG, 90 min.