CAPSULE: Three students vie to win in the Intel Science Talent Search, the most prestigious science competition for high school students in the United tatesS. Tom Shepard follows the hectic lives of three young students with very different ethnic backgrounds doing impressive scientific research and learning to present it under the extreme pressure of competition. The film is exciting, but is somewhat handicapped by the non-public nature of the final competition. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
The United States high school student ranks very poorly against students of a similar age from other industrialized countries. Sports accomplishment gets far more attention in the US than do mathematics and science achievement. But our best students get attention when they compete against each other in the annual Intel Science Talent Search. Here. high school science students present areas of their own research and are judged and ranked. WHIZ KIDS follows three students, each a high achiever in science, each hoping to compete in the Intel STS for fame and for college scholarships. Tom Shepard directs this film, which follows three students hoping to compete in the Intel STS. He documents their preparation and their success or lack of success. The gold standard of similar films, documentaries of high school students preparing for large competitions, is Steve James's film HOOP DREAMS about two African American basketball players struggling to become major athletes. That film was well-made but very much a lucky production since it turned out to be a more dramatic story than the filmmakers could have expected. More on that film later.
WHIZ KIDS follows three high school students, already research scientists, who are hoping to be chosen to show their work at the Intel STS. Pakistan-born Harmain Khan from New York is doing research into discovering a new way of finding the age of crocodile fossils to date other fossils found in the same strata of the earth. Kelydra Welker from Parkersburg, West Virginia, has found a new approach for removing from water a carcinogenic by-product of the production of Teflon. This creates some problems for the family because her father is a retiree from DuPont Chemical, the company that makes Teflon and is likely leaking the byproduct. Ana Cisneros Cisneros, whose parents are from Ecuador, is from Long Island, New York doing research on the communication between neighboring plants of the same species. But having the ideas implementing them in experimentation is not enough. The presentation is of paramount importance. To place high at the Intel STS requires a heavy workload with strong demands for students who are already carrying a full workload from school. That pressure is strong enough to deflect some students from their planned career paths.
Through the film we are introduced to the three young scientists. We get to see what their research is, its surprising degree of sophistication, but we do not see it in great detail. Shepard seems a little overly shy of going into scientific detail in the film for fear of losing his audience. We get a little superficial explanation, enough to whet our appetite for deeper explanation that we expect to come later, but it never transpires. We could have had more detail about the three projects and we could have gotten more information about what the other competing students' projects were. We get only a sketchy idea. Most of the audience for such a film was probably brought up on NOVA and perhaps listens to the T.E.D. Talks and would welcome some well-presented science. In HOOP DREAMS there is a lot of basketball footage, and similarly in WHIZ KIDS the science content could have been increased. In addition much of the judging of the Intel STS takes place behind closed doors. We see contestants preparing for their time before the judging and we see them after the judging, but we just cannot see the really dramatic moments when they are presenting under pressure. Again, HOOP DREAMS had an advantage being about a very public competition. And HOOP DREAMS director Steve James was lucky enough to stumble on what was going to be a very compelling story. These three candidates in WHIZ KIDS were not destined to be key participants in the 2007 competition. Tom Shepard says that his goal was as much to tell a story of the maturing process of the three candidates he follows as it was to cover the competition. And, though that aspect is less dramatic, it does become the core of the film.
Some of the interesting material is about just the mechanics of creating a presentation for the competition. There is one almost humorous sequence in which a student is desperately trying to get his application in much too close to a midnight deadline. The errant applicant gets guidance of navigating the late-night streets rushing in an attempt to get his application in just under the wire.
Even though the subject of this film is much more vital to this country than was the subject of HOOP DREAMS, WHIZ KIDS is merely good without being really compelling. We are given three people, who though they are still in high school are already mature scientists and are perhaps beyond the level of "whiz kids". I rate this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
WHIZ KIDS opens in NYC on June 4 and LA on June 11.
Film Credits: http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt1303821/
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper