Rocket Science (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Rocket Science is the feature debut of director Jeffrey Blitz, whose previous big-screen exposure was with the documentary Spellbound. In that one, Blitz looked at the highly competitive world of spelling bees. In this one, he places his fictional characters in the equally highly competitive world of debating. The narrative is framed as a traditional "overachieving underdog" story, but it plays out more as an offbeat drama than a "Rocky behind a podium" type of movie. The problem with Rocket Science is that the character at the center of the drama isn't very energetic or, truth be told, interesting. This makes it difficult at times to remain engaged in the unfolding tale.

Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is living out his life as a teenager in Plainsboro, New Jersey. He is almost friendless at school, his father has left home, and his brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza), delights in tormenting him. To make matters worse, Hal suffers from a speech disorder. He can form the words in his mind, but they don't come out of his mouth properly. His stuttering has made him a social misfit until the captain of the debating team, Ginny (Anna Kendrick), sees something in Hal that no one else sees. Having lost the top trophy the previous year when her partner, Ben (Nicholas D'Agosto), lost his ability to argue at a critical time, Ginny is determined to achieve victory this year. In Hal, she sees someone with the raw talent to be amazing - or so she says. It turns out that her motives aren't straightforward and the ever-trusting Hal is poised for a fall.

One could argue that Rocket Science chooses to focus on the wrong character. We are given enough of a glimpse into Ginny's personality to recognize how fascinating and magnetic she is: a whip-smart, angel-faced young woman who will use all her charms to get what she wants. She's a lot more interesting than Hal, who is the kind of guy we have seen in countless similar feel-good motion pictures. It's a shame because a movie about Ginny might have been fresh and unusual while the one about Hal is no better than diverting. Hal doesn't hold our attention the way Ginny does; it's no surprise that the movie is at its best when she's on screen. And the longer she's away, the more energy it loses. This isn't intended to be a negative reflection on the ability of actor Reece Thompson, who does a good job bringing out Hal's awkwardness. It's the character, not the actor, who's at fault. Thompson can hold his own opposite stage-turned-screen performer Anna Kendrick, but Hal can't hold his own opposite Ginny.

On a high level, Rocket Science is re-telling Lucas with strong Napoleon Dynamite overtones. The Lucas plotline of a boy extending beyond his reach as a result of unrequited love provides the overall template of Rocket Science, although the female lead here is a less benevolent presence and the male lead would fit nicely into Mr. Dynamite's posse. He is intelligent but socially inept. (This differentiates him from the characters in Eagle vs. Shark, where the protagonists are just plain stupid.)

The point of the movie, which is saddled with a long-winded and unfortunate voiceover, is not for Hal to stun the New Jersey debating world with an improbable victory but to show that there's more to this boy than someone who sits in the corner and stutters as the world passes him by. This is about how Hal finds his voice. Although Rocket Science is primarily dramatic in nature, there are numerous quirky quasi-comedic scenes that may provoke wry smiles and a few good natured chuckles. Blitz wants us to take his motion picture seriously, but not too seriously. It's just too bad there isn't more of Ginny and less of Hal, but that's not the movie Blitz made. Rocket Science is moderately uplifting but not especially memorable.

Rocket Science (United States, 2007)

Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Cast: Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza
Screenplay: Jeffrey Blitz
Cinematography: Jo Willems
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2007-08-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1