Rocket Science

Sundance Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere Dramatic Competition)–Switching from the non-fiction to the fiction domain, albeit a personal kind of fiction, the charming coming-of-age tale “Rocket Science” is Jeffrey Blitz's follow-up to his acclaimed documentary, “Spellbound,” the sleeper hit about the National Spelling Bee.

The HBO-Picturehouse production, which world premiered at the Sundance Film Festival dramatic competition, is an enjoyable film that may connect with young audiences in the same way that “Rushmore,” “Garden State,” and “Napoleon Dynamite” did several years ago.

At the risk of trivializing “Rocket Science,” the film could be described as a coming-of-age film with a stutterliterally. It's reportedly a semi-autobiographical film, based on the experiences of writer-director Jeffrey Blitz.

A wry comedy of adolescent angst, the saga centers on a teenager who tackles the mysteries of life, love–and public speaking. In Blitz's world, everyone, regardless of age, is befuddled by desire and the longing for meaningful human connection. Mixing humor with a compassionate regard for his characters and their idiosyncrasies, Blitz creates a film replete with insights that emerge from the agonies and disappointments of youth.

Life is not easy for teenager Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) of suburban Plainsboro, New Jersey. In the first scene, Hal witnesses the nasty split of his parents, Juliet (Elisabeth Bartlett) and Doyle (Denis OHare). Consolation certainly doesn't come form his older brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza), a budding obsessive-compulsive who pushes him around.

Additionally, and more importantly, Hal suffers from an unpredictable stutter that makes high school an embarrassing experience that involves self-effacement and terrible lunches. While Earl sets out to “conquer the world,” through a combination of assiduous planning, intimidating demeanor and habitual theft, Hal remains in the background at Plainsboro High.

Given that his active mind and quick wit tend to be obscured by his problematic voice, Hal is not an obvious candidate for his schools high-powered debate team. Hence, it comes as a complete surprise, when the teams star member, the hyper-articulate Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), approaches Hal on the school bus one afternoon. The Plainsboro debaters need a replacement for Ginnys former partner, the brilliant Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas DAgosto), who dropped out of school following a calamitous performance at the New Jersey State High School Policy Debate Championships the previous spring.

Ginny, who can compress an eight minute argument into ten seconds without breaking a sweat, dropping a word, or botching a barb, proceeds to present her case for Hals potential as a public speaker. Her command of language is superb, her wit sharp, and her reasoning hard to fault. She has seen Hal, she has seen his promise. Hal is more than just shocked, or even dazed; he is smitten.

As the notion of debating occupies Hals mind, so, too, do thoughts of the attractive and dazzlingly confident Ginny. Gambling that his voice will cooperate with the rest of him, Hal joins the Plainsboro High debate team as Ginnys partner. Trundling back and forth to her house with his ever-growing pile of research, Hal starts to see new possibilities in his life. Perhaps he can tame his balky voice and become a master of rhetoric. Perhaps he can succeed in love–where so many, including his parents, have failed–and win Ginnys heart.

“Rocket Science” unfolds as road comedy, symbolically if not physically. Hal's journey ahead holds twists, turns, and bumps. Despite Hal's best efforts, people and circumstances prove more unpredictable than his stutter. But he rises to the occasion, and in doing so, he scores a victory that has nothing to do with winning a debate and everything to do with finding his true voice.

The movie is well-directed by Blitz and if it were made a decade ago, film critics would have been kinder to it than they were at Sundance. However, a whole genre of similar high-school comedies has emerged, beginning with Alexander Payne's “Election” (with Reese Witherspoon), Wes Anderson's “Rushmore” (with Jason Schwartzman), and the two Fox Searchlight indie hits, “Garden State” (with Zach Braff) and “Napoleon Dynamite” (with Jon Heder), though “Garden State” was not set in high-school.