Five years ago, Jeffrey Blitz charted the class issues and unexpectedly epic dramas within the subculture of spelling bees in "Spellbound." In "Rocket Science," his first narrative feature, he delves into another world filled with the generally unsung triumphs and defeats of academic competition â€” ah, high school debate, where a small, stalwart population of besuited teens (among them, once, a certain film blogger) battle out issues often negligible to their lives in language sprinkled with starchy phrases like "be that as it may."
Putting aside our personal and nearly fatal pangs of horrified recognition, "Rocket Science" is yet another addition to the sensitive, slightly obnoxious teenage boy quirkily comes of age genre, an approximate halfway point between "Rushmore" and "The Squid and the Whale." Be that as it may, it’s highly watchable â€” Blitz is ridiculously adept at capturing the petty dramas of teen life that can loom so large when you’re in their midst, and star Reece Thompson, who plays the shy, stuttering Hal Hefner, has a wide-eyed likability. Hal is recruited by his suburban New Jersey school’s reigning debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), who’s short a partner and who claims to see in Hal debate potential due to what she assumes is a wealth of pent-up rage he’s surely harboring. Hal is immediately smitten; he starts to believe in his own unlikely public speaking potential even as he openly and awkwardly pursues Ginny and, in one amusingly blocked scene, gives her a kiss that she aggressively turns around and takes control of. Hal’s naive malleability can be painful to witness, particularly once Ginny changes her plans and abandons him, but he pulls himself together for a finale that’s neither expected nor too easy.
"Rocket Science" has its share of problems â€” it goes on too long, and it’s saddled with a needless and irritating voiceover and far too many swelling music moments. Still, the film has an unfeigned sweetness that, in combo with clever throwaway details like a couple whose music therapy involves playing Violent Femmes songs on a cello and piano, make it a welcome variation on a Sundance trope.
Picturehouse will release "Rocket Science" on August 10.
+ "Rocket Science" (Sundance)