From Hoop Dreams to Spellbound to worthy Hollywood biopics extolling charismatic teachers who bully or cajole their inner-city pupils to success, American cinema continually, though with varying degrees of skepticism, quizzes the persistent, elusive American dream of meritocratic upward mobility. In Whiz Kids, Tom Shepard, a proudly uncloseted former science nerd, follows three American teenagers as they prepare to enter the Science Talent Search, a national competition dangling a hefty $100,000 prize. Two of the kids are the children of supportive parents from Ecuador and Pakistan. The third is a resourceful young West Virginian girl who has invented a way of ridding contaminated local water of chemicals dumped by Dupont, where her extremely encouraging father works. Whiz Kids is a much less flashy film than Spellbound, and it’s slightly hampered by the fact that these budding scientists are less cinematically wacky and eccentric than that movie’s word nerds. But Shepard, who has made documentaries defending Jehovah’s Witnesses and uncovering anti-gay policy in the boy scouts, is adept at teasing out both the dream’s promise and its limits. Dwelling as much on setbacks and hurdles as on the glitter of competition, this quietly absorbing film is finally more about character formation—curiosity, persistence, endurance—than about achievement as a means to some extrinsic social end.