Whiz Kids showcases students and scientists who devote themselves to new projects, who seek to affect the world.
"I don’t want to do things that other teenagers do because it just doesn't look like fun." Seventeen-year-old paleontologist Harmain Kahn means to make a difference in the world. During his first moments on screen in Whiz Kids, he is lying back o a blue pillow, his face upturned and his smile assured. He's proud to be different, smart, and acclaimed by his teachers and mentors. But it's not long before you see that he's also quite like "other teenagers." Making a four-hour train-and-bus trip each day from his home in Staten Island to Williams College in Flushing, he sighs, "I wish I had a car so badly." Following a montage that shows his journey as he describes it, Harmain adds, "But then I say to myself, 'How badly do you want this?'"
Harmain doesn’t have to say anything for you to know the answer. His dedication is the focus of Whiz Kids, along with that of two other high school students, botanist Ana Cisneros and environmental scientist Kelydra Welcker. All three are hoping to make the list of 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, a competition that has been called the "Junior Nobel Prize" and one that, the film notes in an opening title card, awards "big bucks" to the winner. While the competitors don't like to focus on the $100,000 scholarship, it looms large for those with working class backgrounds.
Kelydra, for instance, hails from a small town in West Virginia, where her father worked for Dupont Chemicals and now suffers the effects of daily exposure to toxins. Her project -- devising a method to find and remove the carcinogen C8 (a.k.a. Perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA] -- is directly inspired by his experience. It's also a project that Dupont is inclined to stifle, as becomes (indirectly) evident when she learns that he regional science fair where she means to show her results is abruptly cancelled. Kelydra takes a high road, soliciting signatures on a petition for the fair to be reinstated. The camera stays close on her face as she makes her way from the Xerox shop to Mid-Ohio Valley classrooms, passing out flyers to teachers who nod in sober agreement with her cause. But then you see a moment with her mother, introduced by random-seeming shots of the family cat and front porch: "On Monday, you were on TV," says mom. "On Tuesday, you were in the newspaper. The timing is suspicious."
If the timing is also a surprise to you (as it hasn't been pointed out previously), the film's refocusing here is to its broader point, that Kelydra and the other students are affected by multiple and shifting pressures as they pursue their own ends. Ana lets her father pack her suitcase (even though, she insists to the camera, "I can do it myself"), and Harain teaches a younger colleague how to date crocodile teeth ("I’m happy to share knowledge even if she is a high school student").
While Harain points out that he puts so much "pressure on myself" that his mother has long since stopped checking his report card, the film makes clear that their projects serve more complex purposes than gaining attention for themselves or initiating their careers. In this way, Whiz Kids raises questions as to the functions of science competitions, as well as, more deeply and abstractly, science. While the judges at the Intel Contest insist they're looking for a kind of person more than a particular project or field of study, they're also setting up measures that can't help but be ambiguous. Judge Philip Deshong, a chemist at the University of Maryland, asserts, "I think the judges overall are looking for curiosity and an innate sense of wonder." He pauses and then asks, "How does one judge that?"
How indeed? Even as the three subjects here explain their interests and goals with the help of animated sequences, the specifics of their thinking and fields remain opaque for most viewers. So you're invited to consider their personal backgrounds -- Kelydra's obvious lack of means in Parkersville, Ana's devoted, Spanish-speaking dad ("I feel like the happiest man," he says, after you've seen him working with her late into the night, "That I am able to share some time and help her in any way possible in her science activities"), and Harain's determination to support his mother and siblings. They came to the U.S. from Pakistan when Harain was just a month and a half old; when his father left, Harain remembers, "My mother was able to feed us by collecting cans." Now, he says, "That's why I need almost to push my self every day, so that I can support my family when I get older, and I don’t put them through what [my father] did to us."
It's a moving confession, but also unsurprising. Each of the whiz kids has a story and motivation that explain how they've become so driven. As brilliant and focused as they are in their work -- literally making up science that doesn’t yet exist -- the film shows they are also, at times, devastated by uncertainty and fear. In New York for the final interviews and awards, Keydra and Harain are horrified, first by the prospect of a personal interview that probes issues other than their projects' questions and results. Afterwards, they're even more undone, teary and trying so very hard to keep themselves together for the ongoing, very personal interviews they offer up, repeatedly, for the film.
This is a terrific paradox, the seeming opposition of their perfectly charming, sometimes awkward self-performances for Whiz Kids and their wretched nervousness while facing the Intel judges. The film also makes clear what's at stake in a contest is named for its corporate sponsor: as much as the science and scientists' curiosity may be celebrated, the bottom line is ever visible. The contestants need funding for projects and for school. When Kelydra considers the likelihood of her going to Harvard, her first choice, her face reflects an irresolvable mix of hope and terror.
Though her best friend/mentor (who graduated from Harvard) reminds Kelydra that becoming an Intel Finalist at all opens doors" to schools previously beyond her reach, Whiz Kids indicates that limits do exist and have effects. And you'll never even know about most of these effects, because even the most brilliant work from the most amazing student won't be achieved or made available if there's no money.
Still, Whiz Kids has faith. If it wonders about the judging and funding structures, it is plainly in love with the students and scientists who devote themselves to new projects, who seek to affect the world. They do it for a range of reasons, and they do it again and again.