SXSW Review: ‘Science Fair’ is a Charmingly Quirky Documentary

science fair sxsw
Doris Fu from Jericho High School in New York expresses relief after hours of judging at the International Science and Engineering Fair. | Credit: Peter Alton

I’ll admit that I wasn’t one for math and science in school, so events such as competitive science fairs were not really on my radar. It is a world that I am still unfamiliar with as an adult, so I decided to learn a bit more while attending the SXSW Film Festival by checking out the new documentary, Science Fair.

The film had its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival with additional screenings at the 2018 SXSW Conference and Festivals. Science Fair was directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, who also wrote the film with Jeff Plunkett. The film follows high school students from around the world who come to compete in the the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in hopes for getting recognition for their work and winning the coveted $75,000 scholarship. However, only 1 out of the 1700 participants can win.

When I say “their work,” I am not referencing throw-away projects that we turned in as kids, like how to grow mold on cheese. These brilliant students are working on detecting and preventing diseases such as cancer and the Zika virus, inventing more efficient healthcare tools, and getting cleaner water to more people, just to name a few.

The teens that Costantini and Foster follow have just as much personality as they do smarts and let it shine on-screen. Robbie Barrat has long hair, refers to his Hawaiian shirt collection as his formal attire, and has a serious interest in machine-learning applications. He actually trained his computer to rap by having it break down Kanye West lyrics. duPont Manual High School student Ryan Folz looks like a typical surfer guy, and acts like one at times, but is on a mission to create better diagnostic healthcare tools with his team, Abraham Riedel-Mishaan and Harsha Paladuguis. Paladuguis is undoubtedly the more serious of the group, so it brought an auditorium full of laughs when Folz talks about Paladuguis’ love of angry Trap music.

Kashfia Rahman is from Brookings, South Dakota and goes unnoticed at her school despite being Muslim, which doesn’t seem to be common in Brookings, and is extremely intelligent. Rahman asked the high school football coach to be her faculty sponsor and it is about as adorably mismatched as you can imagine. Brazilian students Myllena Braz de Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins come from a very impoverished village where their teacher describes the children as house plants lacking what they need to flourish. That doesn’t stop either of them from trying to stop the spread of the Zika virus, which has hit their surrounding area the hardest.

German student Ivo Zell has a love of aeronautics and model planes, prompting him to build a more fuel-efficient “flying wing” prototype. Standing in a field flying his aircraft wearing cool aviator shades (though, he makes it clear that he doesn’t care about fashion), his enthusiasm and constant smile is infectious.

We watch as these participants, along with several others also featured, travel to Los Angeles and prepare for their 6-minute crucial presentation. The nerves are extremely high as they spend half a day answering questions and getting judged. Then the time comes to find out who the placement awards and grand prize goes to. It is actually a bit difficult not to see them all win, but there is quite a bit of satisfaction in knowing that not much can stop these bright young people from changing the world.

During the Q&A with the directors, Costantini said that it is unknown just how Science Fair will go to distribution, but it is in the works. Overall, it was a very well-done and hilariously entertaining documentary that I’m glad I didn’t miss.

Check out our 2018 SXSW coverage here!

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