The flippant nomenclature of Whiz Kids, a warm but ultimately unflinching celebration of nascent smarts, is more than simply facile marketing. Rather than following, as the title might imply, a representative selection of baby geniuses in the hopes penetrating the dire but never quite hopeless condition of American pedagogy, directors Tom Shepard and Tina DiFeliciantonio instead capture the frantic arcs of three heady, lab-haunting 17-year-olds attempting to jumpstart academic careers by participating in Intel’s annual Science Talent Scout, a prestigious competition that George W. Bush referred to as the “Super Bowl of science” in a wincingly embarrassing display of down-to-earthness. The film’s premise, along with its clumsily paced, expository-laden first act, evince a social short-sightedness that its patient enthusiasm can’t quite transcend; the affirmative-action selection of characters (one Pakistani, one Hispanic, two women) may strike some as balk-worthy when the subjects encounter other contestants who seem to have far more compelling stories, and one can feel the documentarians straining to grasp the practicality of their subjects’ research when presumably groundbreaking horticultural efforts are illustrated with incomprehensibly reductive graphics. But even at a subcutaneous level, the film isn’t truly the indoctrinating applause of teen education or science it’s likely to be sold as: It’s a sympathetic but realistic observation of winsome perspicacity only starting to bristle against the cynical pragmatism of adult life.
And while we might initially shake our heads at the unnecessary multi-culturalism of the three prize-hopefuls with whom we journey through the Intel contest experience, they appropriately and resonantly represent the varying manifestations of interpersonal awkwardness endemic to the overachiever aesthetic—a way of life that each teen, with his or her obscenely ordinary and low pressure parents, seems to have been born into. None of the three contestants warm up to the camera sufficiently to honestly explicate their obvious paucity of romantic entanglements (dating is referred to briefly as “out of the question”), but the film’s unobtrusive gaze catches shadows of sublimated sexuality amid the jargon and jangled nerves. One girl corrects her mother’s assumption that Harvard is a top school for the research facilities, stating instead with slightly intimidated desire that it symbolizes for her more generalized “opportunity”; the documentary’s sole male subject exudes an alienating but meticulous smugness while showing a female intern how to carve into fossilized teeth (“You really have to…go straight at it,” he says).
The choice to explore, however clandestinely, how these future Nobel Laureates interact with their more mundanely human attributes allows the film to properly balance its novelty/genius-gawker and underage-inspirational elements; notably, the genre’s most grating tropes have been miraculously eschewed. The anticipated aftertaste of deceptive, “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” triumphalism is effectively avoided by following a youngster who fails to place as an Intel finalist, and another scene recording an attempt to meet the competition’s deadline in the 11th hour reveals the seldom seen fragility that accompanies academic enforcement. Even the movie’s climax, featuring the only instance of behind-the-camera vocal interrogating, materializes with startlingly formalist ramifications. True, there’s an unpretentious, communicable brilliance about one young woman who’s applying her chemistry savvy to halt the unregulated spill of Teflon into a local river, and we sense the directors subtly seize upon her casual nobility, but rather than accentuating the inherent Erin Brockovich-isms, they fashion her as a kind of protagonist by proving her the most intuitive and receptive to growth. The bright tykes of Whiz Kids are more accurately young adults being captured on the brink of learning a colossal lesson: What makes you special is very often nugatory in the real world.