'Science Fair' Turns Groundbreaking Research Into Epic Teen Drama

This is the 'Friday Night Lights' of science.

If you like science documentaries, you will like Science Fair — the winner of Sundance Film Festival’s Festival Favorite Award about kids who savagely compete to be crowned the best young scientists in the world. But if you liked To All the Boys I Have Loved Before, Mean Girls, or any other high school drama in recent memory, then you will love Science Fair.

It’s hard to get people to care about science, but this film might do the trick. In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that only three in ten Americans actively seek out science news. But it’s not that science in itself is boring. What’s really hard is getting people to appreciate the process of doing science — complete with all the failed experiments and negative results — which Science Fair does with a healthy dose of high school drama.

Science Fair is about the scientific process, as demonstrated by cool, smart, and flawed high school scientists who are clearly geniuses. They’re also bros, nerds, and quiet “invisible types”. They don’t always do their homework. They go to prom and turn up (assumedly) hung over for their flight to the biggest science competition in the world: Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). And that’s where the drama unfolds.

Bros, Quiet Types, Inspirational Teachers, and Foreign Students

The film opens on students Ryan Folz, Harsha Paladugu, and Abraham Riedel-Mishaan, a team from a Louisville-area high school that perennially sends winners to ISEF. These are the bros of Science Fair: Folz wears a VR headset as he describes how he wants to make an iPhone-powered meat thermometer for ISEF entry until fearless leader Paladugu talks him into something bit more beneficent — a 3D-printed stethoscope to help doctors detect heart arrhythmia.

The documentary, directed by Darren Foster and Cristina Costantini, cuts between scenes of the group practicing their presentation on the stethoscope and the three driving around the suburbs blasting trap music. We see photos of them at prom and watch as they prepare to hit the ISEF mixer clad in neon sunglasses and muscle tanks. We’ve seen their type before.

Harsha, Ryan and Abraham, the remarkable bros of 'Science Fair'.

Science Fair 

Their story sharply contrasts with that of a very different student, Kashfia Rahman, a Muslim girl who goes to a stereotypical American high school in Brookings, South Dakota. Rahman is quiet and subtle, and despite having won national-level awards for her research on teenage neuroscience and behavior, she’s ignored by other students and even the teachers. Ultimately, the high school football coach has to sponsor her project because no one else cares.

Had this film been a follow-up season to Friday Night Lights, Rahman would be our Landry Clarke: a lovable protagonist that’s perpetually undervalued and thereby wins the audience’s support — and the perfect contrast to the bros of Louisville.

No teen drama is complete without an inspirational teacher: Here, it’s Serena McCalla of Jericho, Long Island, a no-nonsense powerhouse who puts in long hours pushing her students to perform. At a recent event, she told Inverse that she perennially places her students in elite colleges and science programs: Several have been admitted to Brown University’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, a highly competitive program (it took only 97 applicants last year) that accepts high school seniors into both the university and its medical school.

Serena McCalla, the coach of Jericho's powerhouse science fair team 

Science Fair 

A foil to the American competitors are Myllena Braz De Silva and Gabriel De Moura Martins, who hail from an extremely poor region in Brazil. With few resources, and incredible obstacles in their path, they created an brilliant approach to anti-Zika therapy to combat a devastating disease in their own backyard. It’s hard to watch American high school kids go to prom after seeing a exceptional team of foreign students struggle to make ends meet.

Heavy on Story, Light on Research

These are remarkable teenage scientists who are improving the world, not characters in a teen movie. Kashfia has been honored by the NIH for her work. The bros tackled a pressing problem in the field of heart research. The Brazilians developed technology to deal with an immediate global issue. Though the movie doesn’t give us a good sense of how the science at the core of all these projects actually works, it does give us a raw glimpse at the scientific process in action.

The students’ experiments fail. Their datasets are flawed. Sometimes, they have to scrap everything and start over again.

This movie isn’t really about science. It’s about the story of being a scientist in a setting that’s more familiar to most of us than the astrophysics lab at MIT — high schools in America. Watch it because of that. Then, do these kids a favor and Google them. Read the abstracts to their papers. Because now that you know who they are, it’s worth the work to understand what they’ve accomplished.

Science Fair is in theaters now.