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Harmain of WHIZ KIDS (Photo: Shadow Distribution)

Directed by
Tom Shepard
Produced by
Michael Duca
Written by Jane C. Wagner
Released by Shadow Distribution
USA. 82 min. Not Rated  

Whiz Kids celebrates that the United States is still an intellectual meritocracy where smart kids in public schools can work hard, excel, and gain recognition—despite the educational system’s abysmal failings in teaching science compared to the rest of the world.

The Intel Science Talent Search annually spurs 2,000 high schoolers into intensive research to win scholarships that range up to $100,000 for the first place winner. Director Tom Shepard was himself among the 40 touted finalists when it was sponsored by Westinghouse. He and co-director Tina DiFeliciantonio followed three diverse, driven 17-year-olds for more than a year, but the competition is only part of their stories about being young and gifted in America today.

Ana, whose parents are from Ecuador, attends a Long Island high school where most of the students are Latino and African American. She is fascinated by botany, if impatient with the drudgery of bench science. Pakistani-born Harmain, raised in a struggling single-parent family in Staten Island, is determined to make a breakthrough discovery in paleontology. And Kelydra develops a test for chemical pollution in the rivers she loves around her hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia. Faux chalkboard animation by Kevin Ross deftly makes the research they are passionate about understandable to us non-scientists.

The students learn more than scientific research, though—Kelydra receives a political lesson. When she publicizes her results that challenge the claims of DuPont and other polluters in the area before the annual science fair, the school district abruptly cancels the event, which has been supported by those same companies. She’s frantic that the lack of an award could make her college applications seem less stellar. She then publicizes the cancellation and organizes for its reinstatement. (The science fair is restored the following year.)

The importance of supportive mentors is striking. The teens are aggressively proactive in tracking down scientists for collaboration. For Harmain, that means schlepping four hours to work. Ana leaves her very nervous parents for the first time to work in a Colorado lab, only to have deal with the reality that results don’t follow a summer semester schedule, and Kelydra finds a local woman, a Harvard alum, who advises how to streamline her presentation.

The inside look at the competition’s administration is an insider scoop for future applicants. (Procrastination and a wrong turn on a street can undo all the years of research for last-minute applications trying to meet the submission deadline.) After the suspenseful announcement of the 40 finalists who will travel to Washington, D.C., for a round of interviews to determine the 2007 winners, several judges clarify what they are looking for—understanding of the basics of science as well as an innate curiosity. Their sympathy for these young budding scientists provides an important counterpoint as we watch how emotionally devastated the students are when they come out of the challenging interviews.

Unlike other (younger) kids-in-competition documentaries, such as Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom, or the upcoming Racing Dreams, the filmmakers follow the three for awhile afterwards as they absorb their experience, particularly in choosing a college. As the Ivy League acceptances and other awards roll in, their decision-making processes are revealing when they reflect with their mentors and families. And any wishes for more child photos and more family history vanish when Ana dedicates her moving, bilingual graduation speech to her immigrant parents.

Science education was once hailed as the key to winning the Cold War. The closing updates on the threes college experiences and plans demonstrate that these best and the brightest are still the keys to our country’s future, if we only give them the opportunity. Nora Lee Mandel
June 4, 2010



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