PG, 105 minutes
Three 17-year-old boys in Monterrey, one of the most polluted cities in Mexico, have invented a photocatalytic paint that could remove two of the nasties in their air: sulphur dioxide and titanium dioxide. Two girls on Bangka Island in Indonesia, the world's second largest source of tin, have come up with a way to filter the dredging effluent to reduce the lead that's killing the local fish. In Bangalore, a bright-eyed 16-year-old has developed an app that allows ordinary people to measure the pollution levels in their local water.
Forget about Marvel. These kids are the real superheroes of the future – the ones who might actually make a difference. It's beyond inspiring to see that high school children, some from real disadvantage, could come up with these ideas. Those Mexican boys are not from rich families, but someone made sure they got a good education.
Sahithi Pingale, the Bangalore girl, does come from a comfortable background, but she has big dreams and great support. Bangalore used to be the "city of a thousand lakes", her father says, and the lakes were clean enough to swim in. Now there are only 93 lakes, and those are being smothered in raw sewage from Bangalore's exploding tech population. The local TV stations now come to Sahithi to find out the latest statistics on pollution levels. She can see the immensity of the problem, but in data she trusts. First you have to measure it, in order to fix it.
The binding idea behind the film is the Intel ISEF – the International Science and Engineering Fair, held somewhere in the US every year. It's the daddy of all science fairs, attracting up to 1800 youngsters from 75 countries, all of whom have been selected for their exceptional original research. Filmmaker Laura Nix identified four likely groups of participants, from vastly different backgrounds, to follow from home to the fair and back. The film doesn't really make a lot of the competition itself. This is not about spelling. Science is harder to do, and to explain to others – even the brainy professors who judge their projects.
Honestly, I did not expect to get misty in such a film. But dang, these kids are inspiring. They have hope and bright eyes and self-belief, even as 15- and 16-year-olds. And they see the world's environmental degradation with clarity and from close up: it is happening to them. They are still teenagers, so some parts of the fair are hilarious: what would you expect from 1800 geeky teens in a super-dome convention centre in Los Angeles? The Mexican boys use their phones like weapons of mass introduction. "Can I have photo with you?"
Jared, a 15-year-old from Hawaii, has been measuring arsenic levels in the soil of Hilo, his home island in Hawaii. A tsunami in the late 1960s spread the arsenic from a storage dam: now it leaches into the food table and the fish they eat. Jared is perhaps the most awkward of the four sets we follow, partly because he's a loner. While the others are making new friends at a badge-swapping event, he stands by himself, probably wishing the camera would leave him alone.
Documentaries like this are inevitably somewhat artificial – bolted together from chosen elements to reflect an argument, in this case, an environmental one. Each of the four groups chosen is concerned about pollution in their own backyards. That breadth of countries here gives a sense that kids are doing this all over the world – and maybe they are.
We're never told that the strategies they've come up with will actually work, but that's not really the point. These kids are trying to do something about the mess they will inherit from us, after we failed to fix things.
They won't admit that they could fail – it's not an option, says the girl from Indonesia, wearing a hard hat over her head scarf. All of these young adults shine with hope and promise – and that makes the film very moving.
Paul Byrnes was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1989 to 1998. He has been a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years. In 2007, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall prize for critical writing, the highest award in the Australian media for critics in any genre.