By Michael Atkinson
Though it’s never been acknowledged, the teen comedy has evolved substantially from the odiously primitive ape it used to be, and today stands as a fiercely intelligent, unpredictable, insightful higher class of creature. The chasm is huge between the idiotic froth and exploitation crudities we saw in the 1950s through to the 1980s, and the eccentric, inspired, brave and crazy films we’ve seen come out of the indie scene ever since “Heathers” broke the mold for good in 1989: “Dazed and Confused,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Rushmore,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Loser,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Ghost World,” “Juno” and even lowbrow hooey like “American Pie” and “Road Trip.” Jeffrey Blitz’s “Rocket Science” takes its seat comfortably on the dais. Seethingly articulate yet lyrically at a loss, the film chronicles a very particular high school tribulation, and yet it’s so finely and generously observed that it feels universal. The milieu isn’t many football fields away from the subculture Blitz explored in his breakout documentary “Spellbound” swapping out spelling bees for high school debate competitions, Blitz unceremoniously allows his characters their own hyper-learned way of speaking as his hero, a beleaguered nebbish with a disastrous stutter.
His father abandons the family, and he fails to choose pizza for cafeteria lunch because he can’t get the word out, but Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson, in a masterfully constipated performance) sees a way up out of the mud after being “recruited” for his high school’s debate team by a go-getter Type A-student (Anna Kendrick). Hal naturally falls for the girl, ramrod or not, just as he becomes seduced into thinking he can win at tournament debating. That could be the plot for a dumb feel-good Hollywood movie, but Blitz’s film (which features absolutely no slumming guest stars) always sidesteps and dodges the clichés; rarely, if ever, do the characters from Hal’s problematic mom to a voyeur neighborhood kid to a deposed debate king behave in a predictable fashion or speak as if they only have one thing on their minds. (Hal’s cultured-simian big brother, played by Vincent Piazza, seems perpetually on the verge of exploding from unexplained teenage fury.) This approach sometimes forces things to fizzle many scenes that seem to be leading up to an easy joke end with none at all but most often, the movie feels spontaneous, thoughtful and hard to pin down. There is also, not very incidentally, the best use ever of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” But having spent so much time already observing the lives of smart kids, Blitz brings no preformulated thematic ideas to the table about teenagers and high school. It’s just life, lived by people too young to understand it.
A few inches farther down on the indie-budget docket, Chris Gorak’s “Right at Your Door” is an active demonstration of what can be accomplished with little more than a potent idea. We’re in the childless home of an economically static L.A. couple, office worker Lexi (Mary McCormack) and unemployed musician Brad (Rory Cochrane), and not long after she disappears to work, the all-too-imaginable happens: the city is hit by multiple dirty bombs, and suddenly one’s location out and working downtown, or safely ensconced at home? becomes a matter of life and death. Ash falls on everything, fallout could be anywhere, transportation becomes impossible, panic runs riot around the film’s edges and Brad and Lexi undergo the ultimate test of a modern relationship: who would you die for? Masculine guilt and post-feminist resentment lurk at the film’s dramatic heart, when it isn’t otherwise limning the sense of your neighborhood becoming irretrievably terrified and bestial in a matter of minutes. Gorak, a busy art director who’s worked with design mavens David Fincher, Terry Gilliam and the Coen brothers, optimizes his low-budget options, capturing the scrubby L.A. suburbs better than any other film I’ve seen, getting sweaty, vein-popping performances from his cast, and focusing on the minutiae which here boils down to an ever-shifting barrier of duct tape and plastic sheeting. Less is more Gorak’s film out-hyperventilates every atomic attack movie since Peter Watkins’s “The War Game.”
“Rocket Science” (HBO Home Video) and “Right At Your Door” (Lionsgate) are both now available on DVD.
[Photo: “Rocket Science,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]