Inventing Tomorrow

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Inventing Tomorrow Movie Poster Image
Feel-good teen-scientist docu ideal for STEM-focused kids.
  • NR
  • 2018
  • 87 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Viewers learn about the environmental problems that each of the science projects tries to address. Lots of science terminology, but the students all explain their projects clearly.

Positive Messages

Curiosity, teamwork are major themes. Also focuses on science and technology, interest in environmental science and how it affects communities, and how students -- including those from humble origins and developing countries -- can make a big difference. Teaches young viewers about the importance of perseverance and how those with limited resources can overcome obstacles through education, hard work. The students' projects all focus on helping the environment.

Positive Role Models & Representations

All of the scientists are role models for younger viewers, particularly those interested in STEM. They're intelligent, curious, disciplined teens who've worked hard for months and months, if not years, to gather data and work on their experiments. The teens are Hawaiian, Muslim Indonesian, Indian, and Mexican, demonstrating that kids of all different backgrounds and from the developing world can be smart, impactful scientists. And coming from a poor background doesn't mean you can't excel.

Violence & Scariness
Sexy Stuff

The teens wear or use branded products from Apple (iPhone, Apple Watch), Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Volcom, Beats by Dre, and more. The competition is sponsored by Intel.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

In one scene, people can be seen smoking cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Inventing Tomorrow is a documentary that follows four groups of teen scientists from around the world (Indonesia, India, Mexico, and the United States) who are selected as finalists in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). The hard-working high school students explain their experiments, which pose possible solutions to environmental crises in their hometowns. The students then compete in the ISEF, where they're judged by global scientists and experts. The result is an educational, inspiring documentary that celebrates young scientists whose compelling backstories drive them to do their research. It's a powerful reminder that passionate young people from all sorts of backgrounds can use their intelligence, hard work, and dedication to overcome the odds and make it to one of the most prestigious student science and engineering fairs in the world. There's virtually zero iffy content here other than a quick glimpse of smoking.

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What's the story?

INVENTING TOMORROW chronicles the path of teens from Indonesia, India, Mexico, and the United States as they prepare to present rigorously researched science projects that offer solutions to environmental crises. Their proving ground is the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), where they'll compete against more of the best and brightest from around the world. Concerned with the toxic byproducts of tin mining killing sea life and contaminating water, Nuha and Intan from Bangka, Indonesia, create filters for dredges. Hilo, Hawaii, resident Jared -- inspired by his grandparents' survival of tsunamis -- investigates the spread of arsenic in his community's soil. Monterrey, Mexico, trio Jesus, Jose, and Fernando develop a photocatalytic paint that can absorb some of their city's air pollution in the same manner that trees would. And in Bangalore, India, 16-year-old Sahithi creates an app to helps citizens test contamination levels in water. All of the teen scientists converge (along with 1,800 other finalists from nearly 80 countries) in Los Angeles, where they meet like-minded young scientists, present their projects, and compete in the ISEF.

Is it any good?

This documentary about a very diverse group of teen environmental scientists and innovators from around the globe is inspiring and powerful. All of the featured competitors are incredibly community-minded and hard-working. Some are comfortably middle class, and some are incredibly impoverished and have to work long hours after school to help support their families. They're more concerned with what will help their local environment than what looks good on college applications. And they've all spent more than 600 hours working on their science projects. Director Laura Nix follows the Spellbound formula of getting us interested in various prestigious fair contests, but what makes Inventing Tomorrow so interesting is that it's not some David vs. Goliath tale of whether the underdog will win. Even the kids who don't earn one of the top prizes at the Olympics of high school science fairs are still winners, because they've created something important and impressive.

Although Nix tries to invest viewers equally in all four stories, audiences will naturally feel more sympathetic toward one or two of the young scientists. All other things being equal, the three friends from Mexico are particular standouts because they have to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Their families, while loving and supportive, live humbly, without any extra income for even the $300 one of them needs to enroll in university. The boys work as waiters to save money and help their families. They admit to being the first in their families to attend college and talk about the responsibility they feel to support their families. It would be so easy to look at these three working-class brown boys and make classist, racist assumptions, but Nix reminds viewers that there are brilliant, capable, deserving kids in every corner of the world, representing every racial, ethnic, and religious minority group. Perhaps, despite all of the public denials of climate change and environmental science, the next generation will make sure to solve the myriad problems they've been saddled with.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the teens in Inventing Tomorrow exhibit curiosity, perseverance, and teamwork. Why are these important character strengths? How are they role models?

  • Half of the movie is backstory, and half is about the process of competing in the ISEF. Which part is more compelling to you? Why?

  • What are some other documentaries or fictional tales about students who exceed expectations and overcome obstacles? What are your favorites?

  • Does the movie make you curious about environmental problems in your own community and country and how they can be addressed? Research the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for more examples of award-winning projects.

  • For families (or teachers) interested in diving deeper into the topics the movie addresses, consider these lesson plans and full curriculum.

Movie details

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