Rocket Science

2007, Movie, R, 101 mins

Review

ROCKET SCIENCE
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Teenage angst and adolescent agony are the stuff of sharp, observant comedy this quirky, wonderfully dry first fiction feature from documentary filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz (SPELLBOUND).

Another school year has begun, and the life of teenage Hal Hefner (the excellent Reece Daniel Thompson) probably couldn't get any worse. His dad (Denis O'Hare) has left for good, his mother (Lisbeth Bartlett) has started dating the sex-starved father (Stephen Park) of Hal's creepy school friend, Heston (Aaron Yoo), and Hal's debilitating stammer is as pronounced as ever, despite the best efforts of the school's unqualified speech therapist (Maury Ginsberg). It rules his life: On the way to school, Hal practices saying the tricky labial stop "p" in "pizza" so he won't end up with the fish entrée at the school cafeteria. He sits silently in class even though he knows the answers. And he's routinely mortified in public, like the moment when he's called onstage during a cheesy reenactment of a hypothetical debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas to finish the quote, "A house divided against itself cannot stand," and chokes. Hal's delinquent brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza) -- the most original sibling character since Kyp in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE -- routinely demeans Hal by calling him by a variety of girls' names, but not everyone sees Earl's stammer as a sign of weakness. Plainsboro High's frighteningly articulate debate-team star, Virginia "Ginny" Ryerson (CAMP's outstanding Anna Kendrick), knows that sometimes "deformity" can result in tremendous inner determination, and determination is what Ginny is all about: She's gunning for the top trophy at this year's New Jersey State Debate Championship where she hopes to make up for last year's ignominious defeat when Plainsboro's legendary debater, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), suddenly, inexplicably lost his voice. So she recruits Hal as her unlikely debate partner. Hal has doubts about his ability to speak quickly and clearly in public, but accepts when he realizes that he's in love with Ginny. Ambition is a powerful thing and the course of true love rarely runs smoothly, so Hal soon finds himself seeking out the legendary Ben Wekselbaum for advice in love, life and the art of the debate.

It's high-school debate club as a metaphor for life in much the same way that student government served as a model for the adult world in Adam Payne's adaptation of Tom Perotta's Election (though the droll, dryly observant tone of Blitz's third-person narration is closer to the voice of Perotta's Little Children). But despite the obvious influences (Payne, Wes Anderson, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby), there's something fresh about Blitz's outlook, thanks mostly to his ability to lend an adult perspective to teenage experience while retaining a convincingly adolescent voice (it probably also helps that at least part of the story is autobiographical: Blitz was a teenage stutterer who found his voice as a member of the debate team). And Blitz also knows exactly what to avoid. Ironically, he seems to have come away from the onstage documentary drama of SPELLBOUND, understanding that a lot of what happens in real life feels fake in fiction and forgoing the expected climax for something smaller and far more "real." The soundtrack features songs by the Violent Femmes, some of which are rendered as a duet for cello and piano and perfectly suits the film's unique tone. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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