'Rocket Science': Teen angst, refreshingly real

Posted: August 17, 2007

It could have been a cheap joke: a stuttering teen trying out for the debate team. But in Jeffrey Blitz's smartly comic Rocket Science, the painful predicament of high schooler Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) becomes something more - a poignant, absurdist take on adolescent angst, suburban dysphoria, and first love.

Yes, there are echoes of other films - the misfit youth in Thumbsucker, the recent U.K. coming-of-age entry Starter for 10, and the deadpan, left-of-center goofiness of Wes Anderson - but Rocket Science has a voice and tone of its own.

Blitz, whose Oscar-nominated 2002 spelling-bee documentary Spellbound detailed the intense pressures parents put on their kids (and that kids put on themselves), shows real compassion for the awkward, agonizing rites and rituals of teendom. But his film is refreshingly free of sap - there's irony here, and a healthy disdain for the too-neat Hollywood resolution.

Hal, a quick kid from a dysfunctional family (with a brow-beating weirdo older brother), knows who he is and what he wants, but he quite literally can't get the words out. (His mom, who has her own issues, is nicely played by Philadelphia's Lisbeth Bartlett.)

But then the mega-assured Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), star of the school debate team, takes an interest in Hal, encouraging him to join her on the dais, as they tackle issues from farm subsidies to sexual abstinence. Ginny can see, she says, the insight and intellect locked in Hal's head, waiting to get out.

Understandably smitten, Hal throws himself into training sessions at Ginny's house. He befriends her gawky next-door neighbor - a skinny kid (think Pee-wee Herman at 12) with sex on the brain, who spies on Ginny from his window.

Although it was actually shot in and around Baltimore (tax credits, more relaxed child labor laws), Blitz's nifty, oddball story is set in beautiful, bucolic Plainsboro, N.J. There's a wonderful interlude in Trenton, too, which represents, in the mind of one key character, the be-all of the urban experience. The soundtrack boasts plaintive stuff from Eef Barzelay of the unsung indie band Clem Snide. (His music functions in Rocket Science similarly to the way the Shins limned another Jersey tale, Garden State.)

Rocket Science captures the melancholy, the rage, the hurt and drama of adolescence, without pandering or condescending. Blitz and his team have crafted a real grown-up little film, all the more so for the winning performances he's elicited from his not-so-grown-up stars.

Rocket Science *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz. With Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza, Lisbeth Bartlett and Aaron Yoo. Distributed by Picturehouse Entertainment.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase At the Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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