By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Rocket Science,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]
“Rocket Science,” like director Jeffrey Blitz’s first non-fiction debut “Spellbound,” creeps up on you, getting more and more effective as it goes along. In both films, Blitz has a knack for creating (or in the case of his documentary, finding and presenting) young characters we really care for, and then sending them, and us, into desperate, gripping situations. These are movies you feel, right down to your toes.
“Spellbound” followed several finalists in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee; “Rocket Science” is about a bunch of high school debaters, but mostly Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), who grapples with a stutter so crippling he can’t even order a school lunch without hours of preparation. Despite his speech impediment, Hal’s handpicked by master debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) to be her new partner. Ginny is serious about everything, but particularly debate. “Debate is life,” she solemnly informs Hal. “You shouldn’t think of it in any other context.”
Ginny sees some potential in him, and she’s undeterred by his awkward demeanor and lack of social skills. (Hal pointedly eschews a school bookbag for a piece of luggage with wheels, so he’s literally dragging his baggage around wherever he goes.) She claims, somewhat illogically, that damaged people often make excellent policy debaters. In truth, she might just be caught up in the fact that Hal bears a passing, slightly nerdier resemblance to her former partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), who she had a massive, unrequited crush on.
Armed with a passing familiarity with inspirational movies about withdrawn high school students overcoming adversity, you might think you can predict where “Rocket Science” will go a professional relationship between Hal and Ginny that blossoms into young love, a variety of pitfalls followed by a grand resolution and a policy debate championship. But Blitz’s tartly humorous screenplay (which, impressively, is his first) pushes itself in unexpected directions; no less than three crucial moments in the film send Hal’s life in refreshingly shocking directions. To say more about those moments or the plot would spoil the sheer pleasure of their surprise, so let’s turn our attention elsewhere.
As young Hal Hefner the name, I suspect, is a cruel joke at this poor playboy’s expense Thompson gives one of the best performances of the year. He’s like Harry Altman, the fast-talking, bad-joke-cracking kid in “Spellbound” pulled inside out: all the awkwardness, none of the showmanship. His uncanny stuttering is at times too convincing we empathize with the underqualified psychiatrist who has long since exhausted every workable option for curing his pathology and whose half-hearted suggestions now amount to him encouraging Hal to speak like he’s from another country. That leads to a hysterical sequence where our inept hero stammers through his first policy debate in a hapless Asian accent.
Comparisons to Wes Anderson, and particularly to “Rushmore,” are inevitable but, for my money, Anderson hasn’t made a movie this trenchantly funny since that very one, nearly a decade ago. “Rocket Science” is full of wonderful moments, like a sequence that imagines what the classic boombox scene from Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything” would look like with a cello (as it turns out, there is a great deal more broken glass involved). And even if I liked Max Fischer, I didn’t root for him the way I did for Hal Hefner.
“Rocket Science” opens in limited release on August 10th (official site).