Anjali, a child prodigy, competes in “Science Fair” with her project to identify arsenic in water. Photo courtesy NatGeo

The brilliant new documentary, “Science Fair,” offers hope for the future. If you’ve been as discouraged as I am by the anti-science climate in America today, buy tickets now for this completely inspiring and wonderfully made film, which opens September 21 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and in other theatres. Do yourself a favor and check out this trailer:

I can’t rave sufficiently about what a great movie this is. It opens with a hysterically funny bang, and for me, goosebumps and tears. But getting into the nitty-gritty and following the stories of the high school students who compete locally, regionally, and internationally for the highest honors in original research is just so impressive.

Documentaries are often focused on talking heads, which makes perfect sense. You’re telling a personal story and the teller has to share it in interviews and other ways. But this is an innovative film, and you’ll never be bored because of the techniques, intercutting, the use of real and vintage footage and it builds to a remarkable climax, with the one student, facing possibly the most negative odds of all, coming out the winner.

Students from upper class, rural, and inner-city schools in the US, Germany and a poverty-stricken village in Brazil, are inspired by dedicated teachers who’ll make you wish you were in high school again. In one case, at a South Dakota school renowned for athletics and with no interest in science, a dedicated student who had no support, and still gets no recognition there, had to ask the football coach to be her sponsor.

Among the nine students whose stories we follow, there are the party animals, the geeky kids, the loud ones, the quiet ones and the one undisciplined genius who always waits till the last minute. But the work they are doing makes you know that one day, one of these teens will win a Nobel Prize.

We follow along from the inception of their research projects, through the stages of the competition, witnessing their presentations at regional competitions until we reach the ultimate international science fair, where 1,700 students from 78 countries will compete for the honor of Best in Fair. It’s beyond heartwarming, it’s an absolute joy to witness.

I have to acknowledge one teacher in particular, Dr. Serena McCalla, an African-American science research teacher whose dedication has turned Jericho High School’s science research program into the pre-eminent program on Long Island. She works with immigrant students and alternately cajoles, encourages and rides them to demand their very best. She is also the founder of iResearch Science and iResearch Institute, where she shares her motto, “If you dream it, do the work to make the dream a reality,” and her research practices with educators and students. We need more like her.

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, “Science Fair” brings joy, excitement, exhilaration and the behind the scenes stories of amazing students who aspire to be our next generation’s top thinkers and inventors. The film is a poignant and entertaining look into the lives of kids who are committed to shaping our future.


Are you a fan of “So You Think You Can Dance”? Well, get yourself out to Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills for “Hot to Trot,” a look inside the little-known world of same-sex ballroom dance competitions.

The film opens on Sep. 14, and at each of the 7:20 opening weekend screenings, dancers from the movie will be there to perform.

This is a world where personal passions become political statements about bigotry. The back stories of these dancers are both heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting, as we follow them through four years of dance competitions and learn more about their families, their lives, their challenges.

It’s a visually exciting movie, too. The preparations that go into creating the costumes, the choreography and the conflicts that arise between dance and life partners demonstrate the degree of commitment – and drama – involved.

Away from their graceful turns on the dance floor, the characters’ backstories frame their struggles and conflicts in life. The film follows charismatic Ernesto Palma, a former meth addict from Costa Rica, who strives for success and love; gritty, determined Emily Coles, a diabetic who wears an insulin pump 24/7…even while performing; handsome Nikolai Shpakov, a dazzling dance champion, who came out only a few years ago and still longs for the full acceptance of his Russian family; and introspective Kieren Jameson, whose identity was forged in the strict, conservative environment of a New Zealand military household.

Ernesto and Emily will be performing on opening weekend at the 7:20 shows.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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