“Science Fair”: Love the Players and the Game.

Competition is thrilling. The initial motivation to jump in, the development, the anticipation on game day all result in one wild ride. If you’re fortunate enough to win that competition, the emotions can be overwhelming. This is where Science Fair starts, with 15-year-old Jack Andraka hearing his name announced as the top winner of the 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). His reaction is pure joy, excitement, and bewilderment and, despite having no history with Jack, you find yourself crying right along with him. Right off the bat, Science Fair gets you vested in the award so that, when they cut from the celebration to an interview with Anjali, a 14-year-old sophomore, you’re already rooting for her to make it to 2017’s ISEF.

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Anjali working on her arsenic detector.

The film does a fantastic job of keeping the focus on the people. The audience is given time to get to know each student through interviews both with the individuals, their parents, and their mentor or adult supervisor. Everyone comes from different regions, backgrounds, economical statuses, and education resources. They are of different races, genders, personalities, and habits. The representation here is important not only because it’s an international science fair (ISEF 2017 had 17,000 contestants from across the world) but because science is not reserved only for the wealthy and the academics. Science is for anyone who is curious. Just in the sampling provided by Science Fair, some students are advanced and earn straight As while others struggle in such a structured environment to the point of almost failing classes. Some students use their projects as attempts to solve a problem affecting their school or community while others seek to improve health on a global scale.  No matter what their backgrounds or their projects, they’re all hoping for the same thing – to qualify for ISEF 2017 and be seen as peers in the scientific community.

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ISEF competitors.

Attempting to get into ISEF can start months or years ahead of time. Some students seek to improve on prior projects while others are trying something new. Science Fair makes sure to show the students testing their designs, having their reports critiqued, practicing and timing their presentations. These are a lot of details many films would gloss over to capitalize on the excitement of science and competition but they are so important to show the extent of the work these students have to do to prepare. Another significant detail Science Fair doesn’t glaze over is the fact that these students need to sell themselves and their work. It’s not enough to have poster board, binders, and prototypes to win over the judges. The students need to consider the colors and layouts for their materials, how best to present their data, and how to be succinct but interesting in their speeches.

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Dr. Serena McCalla on-site to support her student competitors.

As the documentary gets to and through the week of ISEF 2017, it maintains its focus on the human element, keeping the competition as a backdrop. The interviewees share their nerves and thoughts as they wait to find out if their paperwork is in order or if their work resulted in any flags before competition. For example, the team of Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham try to reason out why their forms are flagged as they await a visit from the science review committee. Meeting with the committee, the boys discuss how they used an aspect of their project to decide whether that use meets specific ISEF guidelines. Strangely, the tension is palatable. This continues due to the staging of the scenes when the judging floor doors close at the start of a grueling 8-hour day of inquiry until they open back up, the exhausted competitors shown streaming out. From here, all there is to do is wait as everyone gathers in the enormous auditorium to await the results. At this point, like the competitors, the audience is dying to know who won in which categories, bringing out the same feeling of excitement the introduction of Science Fair inspired. However, echoing the start, the audience is once more shown interviews of the competitors back home, providing a shift from the award ceremony which reminds the audience where the focus belongs: on the individuals, not the competition. But don’t worry, after revisiting with everyone, the film jumps back into the award ceremony, giving the audience the release of anticipation that has been building up during the entirety of its run time.

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Harsha, Abraham, and Ryan on set-up day, preparing their 3D-printed stethoscope.

Science Fair seeks to motive interest in science and engineering by reminding audiences what science is really about. Yes, it requires hard work and dedication, but it can fun and is very often worth the journey. By keeping the focus on the young people starting their research and supporting them with words from experienced adults who were once in their shoes, Science Fair highlights the beauty of working in the sciences instead of focusing on the drama tv shows, movies, and real life often focus on. Robbie, an eccentric algorithms wiz, sums it all up perfectly. “If you’re there just to win the prize, and that’s it, you missed the point of Science Fair.”

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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