Review: Science Fair Highlights Brightest Young Minds and One Fierce Competition

In a time when the importance and benefits of science are questioned and denied at an alarming pace, the superb documentary Science Fair reminds us that each new generation of would-be scientists should be recognized and celebrated in the same way and with the same frequency as student athletes. From directors Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster, this film follows a handful of gifted teenagers from all over the world, each working on a project either by themselves or as part of a small group, that not only is scientifically interesting but also could have a lasting, positive impact on the world around them.

Science Fair Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

Though a variety of ways, all of these kids make it to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which gives out $5 million in awards and the opportunity for these kids to have their smarts put on display for all, including colleges and corporations. Some are trying to cure or detect disease, another is attempting to design a better stethoscope, others are interested in AI or mechanical engineering. There are no villains in Science Fair (which won the Audience Award at Sundance this year), other than time and the potential for failure. Instead, what we get is a group of very different youngsters armed with creativity and fascinating ways to implement it. It’s not that they all want to win; they all think they can win. The problem is, they can’t all win and that makes the anticipation when the winners are announced all the most nerve-wracking moment of the film.

Even just examining the rigorous process that goes into getting into the Fair and judging the entries is fascinating, especially when one of the groups is nearly eliminated before judging begins because of a technicality. The filmmakers never forget that the participants are still children, complete with all the unbridled enthusiasm for a win and propensity for severe lows if they lose. You’ll have your favorites, to be sure; it’s almost impossible not to. And prepare yourself to be pulled right back into high school, complete with the emotional whiplash and the thrill of competition amongst the nerds—meant with all due respect.

The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.