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Milwaukee native's documentary puts high school kids center stage

Read all of our Milwaukee Film Fest 2018 coverage here.


I ran into Mario Costantini a few weeks ago when he was walking his dogs in Riverwest near his furniture factory, La Lune Collection. He was just bursting with pride about his daughter, Cristina.

Cristina’s wonderful documentary, Science Fair, kicked off the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival Thursday night to a packed audience at the Oriental Theatre. The film is a “love letter,” as her dad says, to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and to the high school science geeks who participate in the annual competition.

Cristina won fourth place in her division at that international fair as a University School of Milwaukee freshman, with a project that measured the effects of peer pressure on high school students. She’s since gone to Yale University, worked for the news site Fusion and also produced serious documentaries, one with partner Darren Foster, her co-director in Science Fair. One earlier doc was on the effects of Fentanyl and one was on the sex trade. Her mom, Cathy, told Milwaukee Magazine this year that she’d taken up the science fair project because “she needed a break from all the terrible sadness of those documentaries.”

Mario said his daughter wanted to do for these science kids what the movie Spellbound did for participants in spelling bees, and what Mad Hot Ballroom did for ballroom dancing (notably, Mario and Cathy are major backers of Danceworks’ Mad Hot Ballroom & Tap program in Milwaukee-area schools.)

He said when she first showed her parents the film, he found himself connecting with the kids in it, laughing at some parts and crying at others. “You know that’s because she’s my daughter,” he reasoned. “I’m too close to her.” But then he went to see the movie at the Sundance Film Festival, he spent a lot of time looking at the audience, and they were laughing and crying, too. “The same things that touched me touched them, too,” he said. The film won Sundance’s first Festival Favorite Award, and standing ovations at its screenings.

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It won a standing O in Milwaukee, too. The Oriental was packed to the rafters on opening night of the festival. And the audience was delighted with these young kids with big personalities. We meet Robbie, a computer whiz from West Virginia who doesn’t do very well in school but loves to experiment with cyber-creativity – he’s designed a program that can generate Kanye West lyrics, among other things – and who has a knack for telling the camera exactly how it feels to be in this gathering of young geniuses. There’s Kashfia, the Muslim daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, who attends a rural high school in South Dakota that’s all about sports and not much about academics. She can’t interest her science teachers in her project (about the brain and risky behavior by teens), so she gets her school’s football coach to be her adviser.

We also meet Gabriel and Myllena, two kids from a small Brazilian town who developed a project to combat the deadly Zika virus, and Serena McCalla, a driven science teacher at a school on Long Island who is so relentless that nine of her students qualify for the international fair. There are also messages that drew applause from the crowd: When McCalla, the daughter of Jamaican and Panamanian immigrants told the filmmakers that this country wouldn’t be much without immigrants; and when there’s a reference to the need in this country to take science more seriously.

But this is not a message film – it’s about these terrific kids, and how they all do in the 2017 competition in L.A. In the end, we learn where many of them end up in college, at least a couple of them at Harvard (and about the one maverick who still hasn’t been accepted).

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Science Fair has been purchased by National Geographic Documentary Films, which is releasing it in select theaters across the United States; it’s coming to the Oriental for a run after the Film Fest. And there are plans, Cristina and Darren Foster said in an on-stage interview after the show, to make it available to schools. Cristina’s father went to the LA opening recently, and afterwards asked two girls about 10 years old what they thought of it. They answered that they aspired being like the high-schoolers in the film. “This is what we want,” Mario says.

Science Fair repeats Sunday, Oct. 21, at 11 a.m. at the Oriental.

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