A smart teen who can't get the words out
Movies about American adolescence should be painful to watch. They should make you cringe in the dark, damage you with sense memories of acne and isolation and social gaucherie. They rarely do, though. There's always someone having sex with a pie.
When it's not opting for whimsy, "Rocket Science" makes you cringe, which is what's good about it. A dryly observed coming-of-age comedy-drama about a New Jersey high school stutterer, the movie's written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who made the spelling-bee documentary "Spellbound" and who here mines his own miserable teenage years for our edification.
The main character is Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), his sexual confidence in inverse proportion to his namesake. Lank-haired, eyes a watchful, watery blue, Hal's a smart kid locked in deep-freeze by his inability to speak. Every day he tries to order pizza in the school cafeteria, and every day the lunch lady gets fed up with waiting and serves him the fish instead. His parents are divorcing, his mother (Lisbeth Bartlett) is dating his best friend's dad, and his brother (Vincent Piazza) is a thug. "Too bad you're not bipolar; that I could do something with" says Hal's school therapist (Maury Ginsberg). Why speak at all?
Into this hormonal cesspool drops Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), queen of the Plainsborough High debate squad and everything Hal isn't. She talks blindingly fast -- so the world can't get a word in edgewise, basically -- and she believes in nothing. ("It gets in the way.") Having been left high and dry when teammate and local debate god Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agostino) had an epiphany and walked offstage mid-resolution, Ginny has decided to recruit Hal. She's drawn by his speech disorder, saying "Deformed people are the best. I think it's because they have reserves of anger." Quite so.
Some of us remember Kendrick stealing the 2003 movie "Camp" with a rendition of Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch," and she's equally coldhearted here -- Bette Davis reborn as a tough, amoral high school wonk. We're in her thrall and Hal's in Ginny's, desperately trying to be the glib smoothie he thinks she wants him to be.
If only it were that easy. Another filmmaker would build to a climactic debate triumph, but Blitz is seeking smaller, sharper emotional truths. "Rocket Science" recalls what it's like to be a teenage ghost, haunting school hallways without being seen, and the film tracks Hal's growing frustration until it blooms into successive stages of anguish, fury, and self-assurance. There's a drunken meltdown, too, and it's a beaut. (All I'll say is that an airborne cello is involved.)
Eventually Hal approaches Ben Wekselbaum, much the way Luke Skywalker approached Yoda, begging the fallen Olympian to tutor him for the state championships. "It's either love or revenge," Hal says, his path clear at last.
"Rocket Science" gilds the lily with cutesy bits of business on the side -- the narration by an unseen older Hal is too bookish, and the musical score tugs your heartstrings even when the script doesn't -- but it's honest and surprisingly lucid at its core. Blitz knows the speed-talking debate kids say less than Hal ever will, and he understands the bedrock Nietzschean truth about high school: That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The movie could be subtitled "Speak, Memory."