You can’t dis the pursuit of excellence—especially when it’s bright-eyed high-schoolers doing the pursuing. So even though the science fair was something your other classmates did while you mastered Pitfall!, the sights in Whiz Kids will no doubt stir you.
At the documentary’s heart is the Intel-sponsored annual Science Talent Search; far from a mere gymnasium affair, it carries a hefty top prize of $100,000. And the work that competes in it (only 40 projects get chosen) has the power to change the world, such as a West Virginian’s chemical cleanup process that poses a serious threat to local giant DuPont.
Director Tom Shepard, once a finalist himself, adopts the typical structure seen in Spellbound and Wordplay, where adorable dorks ramp up their excitement via respectful competition. And the three contestants he chooses to follow are certainly magnetic: winningly verbal and strange. (Young Kelydra, the West Virginian, deserves her own Parks and Recreation.) But from a brilliant mind, you expect more depth; rarely does Shepard’s film address what these teens might be missing out on in their bullish pursuits. Sure, they go to Washington and shake hands with Obama. Yet though the Ivies beckon, you can’t help but wonder if the real world much occurs to them. Still: So much better than The Hills.—Joshua Rothkopf