Rocket Science
, , , , ,
101 min.
Release Date
Rocket Science

Younger brother to its elder Rushmore, but emotionally senior sibling of Napoleon Dynamite, in the realm of eccentric teenage coming-of-age stories, Rocket Science offers your usual dose of self-consciously weird characters, all framed like crooked paintings. Certainly they are quirky, sometimes to thick and exaggerated extremes, but if we straightened the picture, they’d become uninteresting—just another frame on the wall. However displaced these characters may seem, however odd, writer-director Jeffrey Blitz reminds us that when looking back at high-school years from adulthood, everything looks skewed.

Superficially contented with his unwavering shyness and resultant stuttering, teenager Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is one of those boys that sat by himself at lunch, didn’t have many friends, but would surely exceed his limited expectations someday. He visits the school counselor Lewinsky (Maury Ginsberg), who regularly meets with Hal and another student, a girl whose face rarely comes out of her notebook. Lewinsky’s never worked with students who have stuttering problems; he explains that if only Hal was hyperactive, he could do wonders. Alas, the confused counselor, as most high-school counselors are, advises Hal to work through his speech-impediment by whispering, or even singing.

Thompson plays Hal with enough sensitivity to forgive his character’s more peculiar aspects. His performance through the stutter is believable, to where I was looking up post-viewing if he stutters in real life. He does not. We feel protective of him and wary of his schoolmates who seem to be his friends. We worry when he tests his ability to speak publicly, and sink in our seats (indeed, just as he does) when he fails. Things aren’t much better at home. Hal’s father (Denis O’Hare) gets the boot, leaving Hal and his weirdo brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) living with their mother Juliet (Lisbeth Bartlett). She has a new beau, Judge Pete (Steve Park), who moves in almost immediately with his son, the Hefner boys’ schoolyard acquaintance Heston (Aaron Yoo)—a creepily straight-faced character I half-expected to murder someone, though he never did, making him all the more creepy for it. Juliet and Pete have a very physical relationship, much observed by their children in long, pondering stares at the new couple making out.

Hal’s complacent awkwardness develops a ripple when straight-line jitterbug and prep-school wannabe Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) asks him to join the debate team as her partner. Despite feeling he’s incapable of suppressing his stuttered sentences or getting through his trouble words—he can’t seem to tell the lunch lady he wants “pizza” instead of fish—Hal agrees, mostly because Ginny is probably the first girl to give him any attention. But Ginny’s purpose is suspect. She claims to see potential in Hal, and yet each time he’s tested, he fails miserably, which is painful and frustrating for us to see. After a brief kiss with Hal, Ginny’s behavior seems emotionally driven, and perhaps, in a way, that’s true; but there’s something more menacing behind it. She all but disappears from school after that, leaving Hal even more confused than your average lovelorn teenage boy with a stuttering problem and dysfunctional family should be.

Ginny’s former partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) was the school’s reigning debate champion, but he quit after freezing mid-statement at The Big Tournament. Choking before an audience like that is all too familiar for this reviewer; curious that Ben smiles confidently all through it. Now dropped out of school, Ben finds Hal knocking on his door, seeking revenge on Ginny, debate style, fueled by who-knows-what teenage emotions. “It’s one of those two, love or revenge, I’m not really sure which one,” Hal explains. “But it’s one of those two that made me throw a cello through [Ginny’s] window, so you figure it out.”

Teenage verbal competitions are something director Jeffrey Blitz knows much about, having helmed the 2002 documentary Spellbound about the National Spelling Bee. We see children work through their emotional baggage on and behind stage, rarely winning trophies, sometimes winning better self-understanding, and occasionally leaving in utter embarrassment. Hal doesn’t look for his answers through competition; instead, with debate he blossoms from awkward introvert to awkward extrovert. Rocket Science’s narrative exists in that sphere of teendom that rounds off the finishing moments of adolescence and just arrives at the road (long may it be) to reflective self-cognizance. However derivative the film is of Wes Anderson movies (there’s even curiously Alec Baldwin-in-The Royal Tenebaums-sounding narration by Dan Cashman), Blitz makes a genuinely endearing and funny comedy that avoids a predictable Hollywood conclusion. Some might call it anti-climactic; I call it natural. Granted, we don’t learn about our protagonist’s future success story, if there is one. Rather, we see Hal discover he has the ability to move beyond what’s been expected of him.

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