There is always room to celebrate intelligence on screen. Watching so-called “geeks” or “nerds” get picked on in films and television shows for being smart once became commonplace in the grand scheme of Hollywood, although it now reads more like a tired trope than anything else.
But that’s why I’m grateful when smarts have been lauded in the industry, too. Films like Real Genius and WarGames certainly push the power of the nerd to outrageous heights. Individual characters who break the mold in their respective genres — Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, Evie Carnahan in The Mummy, and Malcolm Adekanbi in Dope — value the hard work of being learned.
And thankfully, Elizabeth Banks will soon be using her producing superpowers for good as she preps to add to this particular niche in film canon by making a movie about the “Olympics of science fairs.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Banks and Universal Pictures will adapt the documentary Science Fair into a dramatic narrative feature, putting the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) front and center amid the “rivalries, setbacks, and hormones” of its teenage participants.
Jordan Weiss, who is currently writing the Kat Dennings-starring Dollface for Hulu, will pen Banks’ project. The original documentary was written, directed, and produced by Cristina Costantini (interestingly enough, an ex ISEF contender herself) and Darren Foster. The film generated buzz after winning the Festival Favorite Audience Award at both Sundance and SXSW 2018. And honestly, considering its optimistic and feel-good nature, it’s easy to see why. Last weekend, Costantini and Foster were also honored as first-time filmmakers at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
Science Fair centers on nine exceptional high school students competing in the ISEF. Right off the bat, it’s important to note that the film merely focuses on a tiny fraction of the actual number of students who turn up each year. As many as 1500 kids from roughly 70 countries and territories worldwide gather at this conference of invention and discovery for a chance to vie for scholarships, grants, and other educational and career advancement opportunities. Among the grand prizes are a whopping $75,000 and two $50,000 college scholarships.
Clearly, ISEF is deserving of its label as an Olympic-level race. We then meet our nine diverse contestants who all bring with them equally disparate projects; some of it depends on region. For example, two teenagers from Ceará, Brazil, are trying to find a way to curb the spread of Zika, a virus that has terribly affected their local community. There is also a Muslim girl from South Dakota researching risk-prone teens and their cognitive functions. Moreover, a kid from Germany is focused on coming up with better ways for us to fly in aircraft, and he hand-built an operational model of his potential design.
These are just a few of the prodigies at the heart of Science Fair. Because make no mistake that Costantini and Foster effectively tug at heartstrings with their lovely documentary that allows kids — extra smart and sometimes overly confident or even socially awkward ones — to follow their dreams and revel in these “nerdy” interests. The balanced presentation between the reality of fierce competition and the life-changing peer experience among participants easily and empathetically comes through in Science Fair. The film is earnest where it counts, affirming the belief that kids of all backgrounds are able to dream big and can legitimately change the world.
For her part, Banks is actually no stranger to finding such sweet stories to champion, even if her efforts in such an arena have been uneven. The Pitch Perfect trilogy (which Banks produced, and directed one installment of) is, in a way, about a bunch of nerds, too. They aren’t discovering cures or revolutionizing aeronautics, but the Barden Bellas have to work from the ground up to make a mark as impressive performers at their school. Well, they do in the first movie. The rest of the series eventually banked too heavily on cringe comedy for their more heartfelt moments to even work. Yet, I’ll always hang onto that first Pitch Perfect movie as a sincere ode to tenacity, creativity, and hard work. Banks needs to revisit that energy with this remake, though.
A documentary as strong as Science Fair should be a really difficult thing to mess up, even in the process of adaptation. It’s such an appealing movie with its naturally inclusive premise and buoyant slant, and it couldn’t have come at a better time in our political and environmental landscape as it is, providing a sense of comfort that the future is in the hands of some very capable young people. Science Fair — whether documentary or dramatic narrative feature — deserves to do well because it serves as a fantastic reminder that brilliance and hopefulness aren’t mutually exclusive.