While there are any number of articles, studies, and statistics you can point to that underscore the lack of representation of women at all levels in tech, you can also look at how the industry has been portrayed on the big screen. We’ve had three movies about Steve Jobs (“The Pirates Of Silicon Valley,” “Jobs,” “Steve Jobs,” not to mention the numerous documentaries), another about pioneer Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game“), and, of course, the profile of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.” Among them, you would be hard pressed to find women in significant roles that you could count beyond the fingers of one hand. The industry hasn’t had a great track record of trumpeting the work of women in the field, or encouraging more to come into the fold, but that’s changing. Part of the effort to balance the scales is Technovation. The annual event gives high school aged girls a challenge: put together a team, develop an app that serves a need in their community, and bring it to fruition in three months.
Directed by Lesley Chilcott (producer of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “It Might Get Loud“), the simple premise of “Codegirl” follows a handful of young women as they navigate their way through the Technovation competition. On that basis, the film is a success. Jumping around the world from Moldova to Brazil to Nigeria and the United States, the film chronicles the enthusiastic spirit of entrepreneurship these competitors embrace. Some are learning code for the first time, and while the problems they tackle vary from addressing drunk driving, waste disposal, and online bullying, the breadth these applications cover clearly indicates there is an untapped well of ideas, driven by talented individuals, that the technology industry has been ignoring instead of fostering for far too long.
However, for those who are coming to “Codegirl” looking for a fiery rebuke and exposé on the gender imbalance rampant in Silicon Valley, they’ve come to the wrong place. Chilcott chooses to make the issue a nearly unspoken subtext to the movie, which, if you’re not already versed in the conversation, might be completely missed. But it’s also a wise choice. The young women profiled in the documentary are more enthused about their projects than they are angry about the door that has historically been closed to them. The teams in “Codegirl” are seizing an opportunity, and mixing that with the broader topic of lack of diversity would detract from the film’s modest intimacy. “Codegirl” wins over viewers by gentle persuasion through observation, allowing us to witness what people can do if given even half a chance to show their skills.
This relaxed approach does have its drawbacks, as the picture lacks a narrative drive to cling to. There’s very little in the way of a dramatic arc to the proceedings, and since Chilcott doesn’t know which of the teams she choose to follow will make it to Technovation’s grand finale, where six teams will get their chance to present their app, and possibly win $10,000 in prize money to take it to the next level, it means the movie loses and gains subjects along the way. There’s no emotional payoff, as we never get to really learn about the individuals in the teams competing beyond the task at hand. However, if you’re even vaguely interested in tech, there’s enough happening to keep the proceedings engaging. And even if you’re not particularly well-versed in the topic, the personalities — earnest, shy, confident, and hopeful, and often a mix of all of those — easily draw you in.
A small amount of late stage suspense, and irony, is added to the mix when a system-wide government computer glitch causes a hiccup in processing visas for the teams coming from abroad to participate in the grand finale. Most affected are the group of young women from Nigeria, with one girl noting that her father is already worried Technovation might just be an elaborate scam to lure his daughter into human trafficking. And so the tension is turned to a low boil as we await the fate of the Nigerian team. But having spent nearly two hours watching these young minds, who have yet to hit university, creating complicated programs from the ground up, wrangle with algorithms, make user-friendly interfaces, put together business plans, and more, had they been asked, they probably could’ve solved that computer glitch in no time. [B]