02-19-2017  6:11 pm      •     

The three subjects from 'Whiz Kids,' Harmain Khan, Ana Cisneros, and Kelydra Welcker at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre for a benefit screening of the film. (Courtesy San Francisco Exploratorium)

Nowadays, more students drop out than graduate from inner-city public high schools all across the country, so it's no surprise to learn the U.S. lags behinds so many other industrialized nations in terms of literacy and overall academic achievement. You don't really have to hear the statistics to get the sense that the American educational system is in a state of shambles. Recent news reports about teenagers gang-raping a 7 year-old in Trenton and about 40 gang-related shootings in Chicago over the course of just one weekend leave you with the feeling that all hope might be lost when it comes to this generation.
That's because the uplifting success stories never seem to enjoy equal time, which is what makes "Whiz Kids" such a welcome breath of fresh air. Directed by Tom Shepard, this inspirational documentary chronicles the exploits as well as the daily lives of a trio of 17 year-old aspiring researchers competing for the $100,000 Grand Prize awarded by Intel's Science Talent Search, the nation's most prestigious competition of its kind.
Each of these ambitious eggheads hails from a modest background, so they want to win the competition not only for the honor but to help defray the cost of their impending college educations. Shot during their junior and senior years of high school, this touching triskelion paints intimate portraits of adolescents so likable that it makes it impossible to pick out one to root for.
Born in Pakistan, Harmain Khan and his four siblings were raised in New York City by a welfare-mom who had to rely on food stamps and public assistance after the family was abandoned by her husband. Still, Harmain developed an avid interest in paleontology at an early age, and as a teen started conducting some groundbreaking fossil dating at a college willing to share its state-of-the-art facilities.
Ana Cisneros' parents were born in Ecuador and only speak broken English, so what she's managed to accomplish is also nothing short of amazing. In a basement lab built by her dad, Ana's embarked upon some fascinating genetic experiments in which she successfully trained plant roots to grow straight down rather than spread horizontally.
Finally, we have West Virginia's Keydra Welcker, whose project turns out to be the most timely, given the ecological disaster presently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Outraged by her father's former employer DuPont's polluting of the nearby Ohio River, this budding environmentalist invented a way to remove cancer-causing chemicals from the local water. And her early test results have been so encouraging that she's already applied for a patent on the process to boot.
Although director Shepard does a masterful job of winding the tension during the movie's inexorable march to the Science Talent Search finals staged in Washington, DC, all of the entrants were winners in my book regardless of the outcome. That undeniable fact is easily proven by the closing credits postscript which updates Harmain, Ana and Keydra's eventual choices of what college to attend.
A heartwarming bio-pic about three brilliant, young brainiacs guaranteed to restore your faith in America's future while bringing tears to your eyes.

Excellent (4 stars)
In English and Spanish with subtitles.
Running time: 82 Minutes
Distributor: Shadow Distribution

See a trailer for Whiz Kids


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  • WASHINGTON (AP) — One month after the inauguration, the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Donald Trump's White House still is a hard-hat zone. Skeletal remains of the inaugural reviewing stands poke skyward. Random piles of plywood and cables are heaped on the ground inside crooked lines of metal fencing. The disarray outside the president's front door, though not his fault, serves as a metaphor for the tumult still unfolding inside. Four weeks in, the man who says he inherited "a mess" at home and abroad is presiding over a White House that is widely described as itself being a mess. At a stunning pace, Trump has riled world leaders and frustrated allies. He was dealt a bruising legal blow on one of his signature policies. He lost his national security adviser and his pick for labor secretary to scandal. He's seen forces within his government push back against his policies and leak confidential information. All of this has played out amid a steady drip of revelations about an FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Trump says his administration is running like a "fine-tuned machine." He points to the rising stock market and the devotion of his still-loyal supporters as evidence that all is well, although his job approval rating is much lower than that for prior presidents in their first weeks in office. Stung by the unrelenting criticism coming his way, Trump dismisses much of it as "fake news" delivered by "the enemy of the people" — aka the press. Daily denunciations of the media are just one of the new White House fixtures Americans are adjusting to. Most days start (and end) with presidential tweets riffing off of whatever's on TV talk shows or teasing coming events or hurling insults at the media. At some point in the day, count on Trump to cast back to the marvels of his upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the November election and quite possibly overstate his margins of support. Expect more denunciations of the "dishonest" press and its "fake news." From there, things can veer in unexpected directions as Trump offers up policy pronouncements or offhand remarks that leave even White House aides struggling to interpret them. The long-standing U.S. policy of seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Trump this past week offered this cryptic pronouncement: "I'm looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." His U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, the next day insisted, "We absolutely support a two-state solution." Trump's days are busy. Outside groups troop in for "listening sessions." Foreign leaders call or come to visit. (Or, in the case of Mexico's president, cancel out in pique over Trump's talk about the planned border wall.) After the president signed two dozen executive actions, the White House was awaiting a rush order of more of the gold-plated Cross pens that Trump prefers to the chrome-plated ones used by his predecessor. Trump hands them out as souvenirs at the signing ceremonies that he points to as evidence of his ambitious pace. "This last month has represented an unprecedented degree of action on behalf of the great citizens of our country," Trump said at a Thursday news conference. "Again, I say it. There has never been a presidency that's done so much in such a short period of time." That's all music to the ears of his followers, who sent him to Washington to upend the established order and play the role of disrupter. "I can't believe there's actually a politician doing what he says he would do," says an approving Scott Hiltgen, a 66-year-old office furniture sales broker from River Falls, Wisconsin. "That never happens." Disrupt Trump has. But there may be more sound and fury than substance to many of his early actions. Trump did select Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, a nomination that has drawn strong reviews from conservatives. But the president is regrouping on immigration after federal judges blocked his order to suspend the United States' refugee program and ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, which had caused chaos for travelers around the globe. Some other orders on issues such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall and former President Barack Obama's health care law are of limited effect. Trump says his early actions show he means to deliver on the promises he made during the campaign. "A lot of people say, 'Oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall,'" the president told a group of police chiefs recently. "I wasn't kidding. I don't kid." But the Republican-led Congress is still waiting to see specifics on how Trump wants to proceed legislatively on top initiatives such as replacing the health care law, enacting tax cuts and revising trade deals. The messy rollout of the travel ban and tumult over the ouster of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misrepresenting his contacts with Russia are part of a broader state of disarray as different figures in Trump's White House jockey for power and leaks reveal internal discord in the machinations of the presidency. "I thought by now you'd at least hear the outlines of domestic legislation like tax cuts," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "But a lot of that has slowed. Trump shouldn't mistake the fact that some of his supporters like his style with the fact that a lot of Republicans just want the policies he promised them. He has to deliver that." Put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the camp of those more interested in substance than style. "I'm not a great fan of daily tweets," McConnell said Friday, referring to the "extra discussion" that Trump likes to engage in. But McConnell was quick to add: "What I am a fan of is what he's been actually doing." He credits Trump with assembling a conservative Cabinet and taking steps to reduce government regulation, and promised: "We like his positions and we're going to pursue them as vigorously as we can." The challenge may be to tease out exactly what Trump wants in the way of a health care plan, tax changes and trade policy. At his long and defiant news conference on Thursday, Trump tried to dispel the impression of a White House in crisis, squarely blaming the press for keeping him from moving forward more decisively on his agenda. Pointing to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, Trump said, "You take a look at Reince, he's working so hard just putting out fires that are fake fires. I mean, they're fake. They're not true. And isn't that a shame because he'd rather be working on health care, he'd rather be working on tax reform." For all the frustrations of his early days as president, Trump still seems tickled by the trappings of his office. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie visited the White House last week to discuss the national opioid epidemic over lunch, the governor said Trump informed him: "Chris, you and I are going to have the meatloaf.'" Trump added: "I'm telling you, the meatloaf is fabulous." ___Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac
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