The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Science Fair

Science Fair is in no way a political film, but there's a moment near the end where an interview subject points out that our society seems to be more mistrustful of scientists these days. The reasons for that are best left explored in another documentary. However, there's some truth to the statement, which is why this movie is as important as it is entertaining. Directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow some of the best and brightest high school students from around the globe as they attempt to win at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). In that regard, Science Fair serves as a reminder of how our lives have been made better by scientific advancements and how they might be even better in the future if these kids accomplish their dreams.

We meet a number of students over the course of ninety minutes. Kashfia, a Muslim girl living in South Dakota, attends a high school with three gymnasiums and zero science labs, despite the fact that their football team is on a humiliating losing streak. She's studying the adolescent brain's response to risky behavior. Robbie is interested in “machine learning” and has taught his computer to analyze Kanye West lyrics and formulate its own raps based on them. Myllena and Gabriel live in an impoverished section of Brazil that was hit hard by the Zika virus. They want to prevent it from spreading.

There is one notable adult profiled. Serena McCalla is a teacher at Jericho High School in New York. She's so committed to helping her students win that she's given up all desire to have anything even remotely resembling a social life. McCalla pushes her pupils as hard as she pushes herself.

Science Fair has other subjects, as well. All of them make their way to the ISEF, where their projects will be judged by professional scientists, and prizes will be given to the winners. The documentary makes it clear that this is not just a lark. The scientific community is genuinely looking for new ideas, so winning can open doors for top college admission and future research opportunities.

The film contains moments of high drama – the kids struggle to polish their presentations, have their confidence rattled after eyeing some of the formidable competition, and grapple with unanticipated difficulties, like receiving a possible citation for inadvertently violating the rules. Other scenes are humorous, such as when the burgeoning scientists – who, by their own admission, tend to be social outcasts at home – attend a mixer dance put on by ISEF.

A considerable deal of suspense is built as we wait to see which, if any, of these amazing teenagers will triumph. The true joy of Science Fair, though, is in getting to know them. People tend to write teenagers off as slackers, with few interests beyond partying, videogames, and hanging out. Here are a bunch of them who may have ways to make the world a better, safer, more knowledgeable place. Their commitment to pursing that goal is inspiring.

It would have been nice to learn about their projects in a little more detail, especially since we don't really get a whole lot of backstory about how any of them formulated their hypotheses. Fortunately, Science Fair has enough working in its favor that this isn't particularly damaging. The film works because it celebrates the dedication of these admirable young people. You'll feel proud for them, and grateful for their efforts.

( 1/2 out of four)

Science Fair is rated PG for some thematic elements and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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