No impediments to quality in 'Rocket Science'

Posted: August 17, 2007

"Rocket Science" is so redolent of other people's work, it's easy to lose sight of what's new and best about it.

Because it arrives in the era of deadpan eccentricity, for instance, it's bound to be compared with the work of Mike White, Jared Hess and Wes Anderson. It borrows a character from "Election," and its visual sense of place (suburban, middle-class New Jersey) from Todd Solondz. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz even borrows an idea from one of his own movies, the documentary "Spellbound."

Somehow, though, Blitz has cobbled all of this together into something that feels completely different, welcome, and rewarding.

"Rocket Science" is the story of Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), a brainy, sensitive kid - but he's a stutterer, so nobody really gets it, especially at school.

What a stunning moment then, when a smart, cute upper-classwoman named Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) asks him to be her partner on the debate team. The seductive logic of her pitch (people who overcome handicaps make the best debaters) has Hal in a swoon, on top of the fact that she's rich, she's pretty, and she's noticed him.

The know-it-all, super-competent Ginny is a borrow from Tracy Flick in "Election," but she's also her own creation. Whereas Flick's perfectionism grew out of self-doubt, this girl's grows from a surfeit of confidence. It's this confidence that the misfit, marginalized Hal finds so mesmerizing, and the monumental crush that Hal develops on her in "Rocket Science" is memorably vivid.

What will Blitz do with this? Well, he's certainly not interested in a sentimental movie about puppy love, requited or otherwise. He crafts a hair-raising narrative twist that takes the movie in an unexpected direction - a big reason that this superficially derivative movie so often feels original.

Suffice it to say that Hal does not overcome his stutter on his way to being a debating champ. In fact, Hal finds that high school is even more merciless, treacherous and indifferent to individual suffering than he'd imagined, even as a taunted child with a speech impediment.

And he finds that if he's going to survive, he'd better get a grip. Too bad "Rocket Science" is an art film. It should be seen by as many teens who will see "Spider-Man 3." Your future members of Trench Coat Mafias, in particular, need to take a good, hard look at it.

You were pushed around in high school? Get in line. There is no more universal experience than being picked on in high school, unless it's being dumped by someone on whom you have a crush.

Hal is dumped, dumped on. His parents are split. His brother's a bully. But he's with-it enough to know that his biggest enemy isn't taunting, or fickle girls or bullies, or New Jersey or any of the thousand petty indignities his flesh is heir to.

It's self-pity. So Hal keeps plugging. He works hard to control his stutter. He tries against all odds to be a good debater. Failure is certain, but it's not important that he conquers, only that he tries.

After all, the kind of character that Hal develops into in the face of adversity lasts forever. High school only lasts four years. *

Produced by Effie Brown and Sean Welch, written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, distributed by Picturehouse.

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