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“Rocket Science”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[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Armed with a passing familiarity with inspirational movies about withdrawn high school students overcoming adversity, you might think you can predict where “Rocket Science” will go — a professional relationship between Hal and Ginny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).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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