SxSW Film Review: Science Fair (Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster)

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If I had wanted to start my scientific career with… correction: if I had known that people still consider it meaningful to launch one’s scientific career by going through a pageantry similar to the Westminster Dog Show, I could have marched on and decimated my cynical optimism much more effectively and quit a long time ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with Science Fair, the International Science and Engineering Fair, run by Intel, is an annual convention that plucks kids around the world, together with their nerdy chemical-volcano-equivalent and drop them in front of the relentlessly all-seeing eyes of Sauron. Um, I mean, real expert judges in their respective STEM fields.

I was of course only half joking about the LOTR analogy. Pragmatically, everyone knows that the Science Fair is akin to a gateway-to-Harvard lottery. Once you complete the task, the world is your oyster, and your life will never be the same. Only differences being that you shoulder only your future; an unspeakable evil will not stop taking over both your mind and the world if/when you fail. And like Mario, you have a few tries. And to be perfectly blunt, no one “sciences fairly” at science fairs, either. At least, not if you wish to place or win awards. I would much rather a PhD helms the science program in my school, instead of running a program that tutors elite students to specifically win science fairs. Yet the disparity between true experts and a teenage prodigy can still be devastatingly vast. A unprepared, raw experience can still recall being chased by the Predator, or cowering like the lamb in the jaws of the Jurassic Park T-Rex. So, kids do need guidance – but is it worth the cost of everything else?

All these conflicting lines of thoughts are what make this film so fascinating to watch. Co-directed by a past participant of the Fair (Costantini), Science Fair is an uproarious, hilarious, naive and yet aching look at how we glory in our own (apparent) success in preparing the next generation for the most technologically advanced society humankind has ever seen. While there are really no surprises given the current sociopolitical context, I won’t give anything away about the narrative, except to say that it is the wunderkind characters themselves who really drive the film. How can you not be drawn into the youthful energy focused 123% on curing malaria one moment, 314.159% on head-banging to trap music the next, while holding a religious certainty of your unique significance in the universe? Ostensibly, the film wants to promote the continuation of the Science Fair, as Intel has been decreasing its funding recently. What we should also do, besides rushing to watch this documentary, is to re-live and reflect on whether it is the best way to promote scientific learning. Just remember – your tube-full of all-3-meals each bedridden day at 98 could come with a side of shitty rave music (or perhaps we would all be reprogrammed to love rave music). Shudders all-round.

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Posted on by Gary in Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest

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