Rocket Science (2007) dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza
From the creator of the wonderful documentary "Spellbound" comes a first dramatic feature about the world of high school debating. "Rocket Science" was a Sundance hit from last year, but didn't find an cinema audience, and now arrives unceremoniously on DVD. Sundance has a habit of aggrandizing films only to find disappointment once they hit the real world. Unfortunately "Rocket Science" is such a film.
Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is a high school freshman with a stutter - not a traditional stutter - he disguises it very well, with a lot of "umms" and "ahhs". As a result he doesn't talk in class even though he knows all the answers to the questions. One day a nerd-hot chick from the debating team, Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), asks him to be part of the team. He joins and develops an attraction to her - one of those first crush attractions. And so when things suddenly go all wrong for no apparent reason and Hal is unceremoniously dumped his life goes into a tailspin.
Hal is not only dumped, Ginny moves to a new school and joins a rival debating team. All Hal got was one kiss and some clothed groping. He even questions if he got to second base. But it's enough for Hal to make it his mission to exact revenge on Ginny. He attempts to beat her in the State finals by obtaining help from the former State champion, who's now down in the dumps and working in a laundry mat. Meanwhile, his mother has started dating the father of a fellow Korean student, and his brother is a chronic kleptomaniac. Oh yeah Hal constantly carries around a suitcase with him for no apparently reason and has a penchant for hiding in janitor's closets.
"Rocket Science" tries really hard to be quirky. 'Quirky' comes naturally from material and characters we love because of their eccentricities. "Rushmore" is the template Writ/Dir Blitz is trying to fit himself into. But it's quirkiness masks what is a simple story, which, if told right, could have been a fine film. We have a kid with a stutter who wants to be on the debating team - there's a good film right there. Debating is an interesting milieu, especially when it's coming from the director of "Spellbound". So where does the film go wrong? Essentially we don't ever get to see Hal perform debating well.
A classic sports-genre confrontation is set up between Ginny and Hal which never pays off. There isn't much of a love story either. Ginny shows some interest in Hal, but she's too stuck up and business-life for us to like her. It's easy to see why Hal would fall in love her though - she has bookish girl-next-door good looks - that reserved personality that you can't help but try to crack. And for a while at the beginning their relationship was going somewhere. But Blitz takes her out of the story and out of Hal's life. We fill in a few blanks and can come to our own conclusions why she left the school and team so suddenly, but it doesn't broaden her character or deepen their relationship.
The supporting characters exist and act for the sake of themselves. Hal's mother who leaves Hal's father at the beginning of the film takes up with a Korean man with a passion for the Kama Sutra. We never see a progression of either of these relationship and nor do they affect the course of events in Hal's journey.
"Rocket Science" recycles the goto elements of the quirky comedy, specifically scratchy titles (Fall, Winter, Spring) and the obscure indie pop soundtrack- this time it's the Violent Femmes that get the spotlight. We've this done better in Rushmore, Garden State and Juno - and arguable worse in Thumbsucker. There's also a voiceover, which sounds eerily familiar to the wonderful documentary-like approach in "Little Children".
So, everything we see and hear in "Rocket Science" has been done before. There's nothing wrong with telling a genre story, but Jeffrey Blitz puts his film into the wrong genre. If he stayed with a traditional high school story - boy, girl, debate, love, sex, heartbreak, triumph and revenge Blitz might have another "Election".
"Rocket Science" is now available on DVD from Alliance Films.