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INVENTING TOMORROW Is a Documentary About Badass Teenagers Who Will Save All Of Us (Sundance Review)

It was depressing walking out of An Inconvenient Sequel at Sundance last year. Al Gore’s documentary felt like the alarm going off 10 years after hitting the snooze button. No attempt at tying things up with optimism could gloss over the profound pessimism that pervaded every minute that preceded. Inventing Tomorrow is the antidote. The documentary by Laura Nix follows seven teenagers from around the world as they prepare and present projects for the gold standard of science fairs, Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

The word you’re going to see most associated with this film is “inspiring,” and while it’s definitely that in a jump-out-of-your-seat kind of way, the overwhelming sense it instilled in me was one of relief. It felt like this is the cavalry that’s come to save us from ourselves. These extraordinary, driven, eco-compassionate children are cancelling the apocalypse.

In Bangka, Indonesia, Intan Putri and Nuha Anfaresi explored ways to create a soil-based filter for tin-mining ships to use so they can stop destroying coastal waters. In Hilo, Hawaii, Jared Goodwin exhaustively sampled the soil around a neighboring lake to match arsenic levels to the water dispersed during two major tsunamis. In Bangalore, India, Sahithi Pingali collected data on the disappearing lakes of her town in order to develop an app to crowdsource saving them. And in Monterrey, Mexico, Jesus Martinez, Jose Elizalde, and Fernando Sanchez developed a paint that absorbs and neutralizes air pollution.

The doc lets us into these teenagers’ lives in a non-invasive way, letting us perch on their shoulders to give us a sense of their daily existence–which is pretty much exactly as you remember your own high school life. The boys from Mexico worry about how they’ll talk to girls from other countries when they attend ISEF, and the girls from Indonesia sing Taylor Swift together when they find out Putri can’t go to the competition. ISEF itself also feels like a field trip, lecture series, and prom all rolled into one, with a pin-exchanging mixer that’s as adorable and awkward as you’re imagining.

Yet Inventing Tomorrow also has the kind of stirring imagery necessary to remind us of what these children are working to protect. The most dramatic are shots of Pingali and fellow ISEF hopeful Prashaant Ranganathan walking along a lake covered in a layer of toxic foam formed by chemical runoff from nearby apartments and houses. In May 2017, the lake caught fire, but the sight of the foam spewing over the concrete embankment and flying into a busy street is just as harrowing because it represents a daily reality that many people have simply learned to accept. The problem seems too large to solve, but Pingali doesn’t let that stop her from trying.

Inventing Tomorrow is told in two acts. The first allows us a window into the teenagers’ lives as they prep their presentations and get guidance from parents and mentors. The second half of the doc drops everyone into the Los Angeles Convention Center for the thrills and nerves of ISEF, mirroring other competition documentaries like Spellbound. However, the stakes for the competition seem secondary to the work they’re all doing.

If it’s impressive to see what these kids can do on their own, it’s astonishing to see what happens when they get together. That they are all a part of a larger community is the full promise of the film’s story. When Anfaresi meets Pingali, it’s like atoms smashing together. When you see the team from Mexico talking about their process to a group of touring children, you’re seeing the future teaching and inspiring the near future.

Inventing Tomorrow is a wonderfully hopeful profile of scientists who are old enough to grasp the gargantuan problems facing their global community, and young enough to still believe they can solve them. That belief, that drive is exactly what the world needs.

4 out of 5 world-saving burritos

Images: Fishbowl Films

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