Review: ‘Inventing Tomorrow’

Another formulaic science fair movie. (But a passionate one.)

5 mins read

Inventing Tomorrow
(USA, 87 min.)
Dir. Laura Nix

Imagine a city carved by bubble bath lakes with white, foamy and luscious bubbles scattering the streets. That is what we see in the city of Bangalore, India in Laura Nix’s Inventing Tomorrow, only the reality is not so beautiful; in fact the bubbles are caused by toxic waste combining with household detergents. Nix’s film follows a group of young scientists from different ends of the world as they tackle environmental issues such as the one in Bangalore in their local communities. Through scientific exploration, innovation and creativity they prepare to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). [Also seen in the cute but predictable Science Fair.]

The film is structured around the Fair and young scientists who are eager to win in the competition. The first half of the film gives us a glimpse in the daily lives of the young scientists as they nervously prepare their presentations before the journey to ISEF in Los Angeles. Jared Goodwin, aged 16, from Hilo, Hawaii, is concerned with arsenic levels in the soil. He says, “I was told by parents to always respect the Aina, the land that we live off of.” Over 28 years, arsenic was slowly released by a factory into the pond by the Goodwin family home. Through the misfortune of two 20th century tsunamis, which his grandmother survived, the arsenic contained in the pond spread into the towns and their soil. Goodwin is developing a system to track the amount of arsenic in the area. He’s slowly creating a zoning hotspot map to document concentration levels.

Nuha Anfaresi, aged 17, from the island of Bangka, is concerned about the waste produced from the region’s tin mining operations, both legal and illegal. As the region depends on tin mining for economic survival, the spirited young Anfaresi realizes that the tin mining industry is unavoidable, so she focuses her effort on developing a filtration system for dredgers to use.

Sahiti Pingalk, aged 16, is from Bangalore, India, which was once known as the city of a thousand lakes. Now, she tells us, it’s known as the Silicon Valley of India with around 93 surviving lakes, some of which you can’t even see due to overgrown weeds. Others are foaming up, due to industrial spillage, sewage drainage and untreated chemical waste from detergents. As each lake is contaminated differently, Pingalk is developing an app that monitors water quality and allows locals to share their own data.

Jesus Martinez, aged 17, Jose Elizalde, aged 18, and Fernando Sanchez, aged 17, are a charming trio from Monterrey, the business centre for north-east Mexico, with industries that simply cannot be stopped. Their project started with them getting hit with a shot of smog from burning diesel everyday as they waited for their bus to get to high school. By developing a photocatalytic paint that transforms pollutants into non-toxic byproducts when exposed to air, they hope to decrease the worst airborne conditions in the city.

While the young scientists are passionate, creative innovators who are inspiring and leave you rooting for them, Nix’s documentary is formulaic and predictable. Stylistically and formally prosaic, save for a few beautiful shots and touching stories, the film presents a bland overview rather than a story about young people and their passionate fight for the environment. Nix does not offer us an in-depth look into the lives of the characters. The background stories of the enterprising youngsters are minimal or undermines their personalities, ultimately leaving them less memorable than they should be. Instead of devoting half the film to the competition, Nix could have spent her time more properly developing the scientists and their individual stories.

The environmental issues raised in Inventing Tomorrow are grave and it is refreshing to see the younger generation’s adept minds working on finding solutions to problems larger than themselves. Were it not for the enthusiasm, passion and personal connection that Nix’s youthful scientists bring to their causes, the film would be hard to recommend. But their creativity and idealism make Inventing Tomorrow a minor but interesting environmental feature doc.

Inventing Tomorrow opens Jan. 18 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

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