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'Science Fair' review: Intelligent, entertaining documentary with spotlight on LI teacher

Teacher Serena McCalla from Jericho High School is

Teacher Serena McCalla from Jericho High School is featured in the documentary "Science Fair." Photo Credit: National Geographic Documentary

PLOT High school students from around the world enter their projects into a prestigious science competition.

RATED PG (brief language)

LENGTH 1:30

PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas

BOTTOM LINE An irresistible documentary that brims with youthful spirit and high ideals.

You don’t need to know your endothelial cells from your amygdala to fall in love with “Science Fair,” an ebullient documentary about high school students competing at the International Science and Engineering Fair, known as ISEF. It’s a “Mad Hot Ballroom” for the science-club set, but thanks to an endearing cast of characters, it's also a total crowd-pleaser. Upbeat, optimistic and idealistic, it's a snapshot of a generation that may yet usher in a brighter, better future.

The film’s journalists-turned-directors, Cristina Costantini (a former science-fair kid) and Long Island native Darren Foster, expertly fashion real-life material into something that feels like a great sports movie — dramatic, suspenseful, engrossing. They lead with an interview with the 2012 ISEF winner, Jack Andracka, who tells us what’s at stake: $75,000 and near-guaranteed admission to the college of your choice, along with such fun perks as visiting the White House and conducting your own TED Talk. “Winning,” Andracka tells us, “will change your life in ways you don’t even comprehend.”

From there, we meet our cast of characters, several of whom could anchor a movie of their own. Robbie, an eccentric slacker from West Virginia, hopes to make up for bad grades by winning a prize with his artificial intelligence project. Kashfia, a Muslim girl virtually unknown at her South Dakota high school, has been quietly conducting a neural study on risk-taking behavior. Myllena and Gabriel, from Brazil, are working on a shoestring budget to curb the Zika virus that invaded their hometown. Just when we think we’ve found the hero we’ll root for, “Science Fair” introduces us to someone else who steals away our loyalties.

The film's most formidable figure is Long Island’s Serena McCalla, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and now a science teacher at Jericho High School, a repeat winner at the ISEF over the past several years. Supportive and encouraging but also quick to explode over a sloppy detail, McCalla has earned the respect and adoration of her nine-person team. One of her students, an Asian boy with a cheery smile, seems to enjoy McCalla’s occasional browbeating. “It reminds me of my life in China,” he says.

Running through “Science Fair” is an egalitarian theme: A good idea can come from anybody, anywhere. Cliché as it sounds, the students seem to genuinely value the fair itself more than the prizes they might win. It’s the annual ISEF dance party, a high-spirited gathering of roughly 1,700 brainiac teens of all colors, creeds and genders, that best sums up this winning film. 

WHAT'S UP, DOC?

In the wake of reality television, documentary filmmakers began livening up a somewhat musty genre by covering contests and competitions. Here are four docs that rode that format to theatrical success:

HANDS ON A HARD BODY (1997) In Longview, Texas, 24 people attempt to win a truck by keeping at least one hand on it the longest. S.R. Bindler’s doc — which predated the reality television craze — was unexpectedly enthralling, and later became a stage musical.

SPELLBOUND (2002) Eight precocious kids, sponsored by their local newspapers, face off at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. “Science Fair” co-director Cristina Costantini has cited this doc as a major inspiration for her film.

MAD HOT BALLROOM (2005) A clear influence on “Science Fair,” Marilyn Agrelo’s film follows public-school kids in New York City who have devoted themselves to old-fashioned ballroom dancing.

GOOD HAIR (2009) For his movie on the culturally complex subject of African-American hair, Chris Rock visits a styling competition where the elaborate presentations combine theatricality, rock-show lighting and runway-ready attitude.

--Rafer Guzman
 

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