Director: Jeffrey Blitz
You know you’re in the presence of a truly original filmmaking voice when only a few minutes into Sundance Film Festival award winning director Jeffrey Blitz’s Rocket Science, our narrator Dan Cashman summarizes the film’s opening events with the proclamation that, “Suitcases end marriages and farming subsidies launch cataclysms.” Referring to two arguments presented in the film that find the father of our unlikely hero Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) walking out of the family home after bargaining with his soon to be ex-wife over which pieces of luggage he will take with him as well as seeing a highly verbal veteran debater succumb to uncharacteristic silence during the high school state championship, the film recalls the first three movies by Wes Anderson in giving us eccentric literary characters who, despite living in a bland, nondescript suburban New Jersey environment, are anything but ordinary.
Making his feature film debut, impressive documentarian Jeffrey Blitz whose award-winning Spellbound followed a group of diverse children as they made their way to competing in the National Spelling Bee, Rocket Science calls not only on his apparent affinity for words and education but also his own life as a teenager who overcame a stutter and joined the high school debate team. While seemingly not as confident or successful as Blitz may have been, Hal Hefner is an undeniably smart and sensitive student who practices requesting pizza for his school lunch and writes down the correct answers to asked questions in his notebook but when he has the opportunity, finds it impossible to speak up due to his pronounced nervous stutter. Of course, it doesn’t help matters when his speech therapist teacher suggests a remedy to the problem by urging Hal to sing, whisper, or use an accent, lamenting that he wished the boy was instead hyperactive since speech pathology isn’t his specialty and instead he offers inapplicable advice on the perils of open relationships.
He is offered a glimmer of hope when the attractive, talented debater Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) still scorned by her disappointment when previous partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) froze up and stopped speaking at the championships before going into hiding as a dry cleaning employee, intuits inexplicable promise in young Hal and in her words “ferrets” him out to recruit him to the debate squad. Partially it seems the decision was made in irony of trying her luck on a quiet guy who may talk rather than the crushing defeat of partnering with a talkative guy who went quiet along with the boys’ resemblance to one another, but determined in her attitude that “deformed people” are best because of their “deep resource of anger,” Ginny eggs Hal on and predictably and perilously he falls in love with her. Often compared to the indie hit Thumbsucker, about which I could find little to like or identify with, Rocket Science surpasses Thumbsucker and although it suffers from an unevenly melancholy middle act, the performances of both Thompson and D’Agosto in particular keep us instinctively on their side. A superbly written and intelligent coming of age comedy that perfects the sweet and sour trend of indie films of the genre and with all of its eccentricities such as a marital couple who plays instrumental versions of Violent Femmes songs for therapy and Hal’s mother who assumes her Asian boyfriend’s homemade tuna casserole is an exotic dish from his ancestral homeland, Rocket Science may very well be a film that will attract even more followers on DVD the way that the film's unlikely hero Hal causes people to give him a second look to see what they've missed.