At first Rocket Science seems headed down a well-worn path: The ads and premise-a stuttering youngster joins his high school debate team-appear to promise a fictionalized debate oriented version of the recent slate of niche based, quirky documentaries like Wordplay and writer-director Jeffrey Blitz’s previous effort Spellbound. When it comes to protagonist Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) and his milieu, however, the filmmaker wants to evoke more than the usual, vaguely superior bemusement. In fact, the movie’s not really about the debating world, or stuttering, or high-school life for that matter. Instead, it is predicated entirely on the complex, conflicting and very confusing emotions that so frequently swirl through the heads of teenagers like Hal.
Blitz inspires significant empathetic involvement in the picture by focusing on the travails of his refreshingly ordinary main character, an individual like most of us: without dashing good looks, a blazing quick wit or particularly strong will. He’s a lost soul, struggling to find and understand himself amidst the stifling social pressure of high school, the perils of his affliction and the bitterness latent in his working class New Jersey hometown. That journey towards self-understanding, in which Hal must somehow overcome those obstacles and learn to respect himself, provides the powerful core of what is, unquestionably, one of the year’s best films.
The picture opens with Hal slogging through his life’s daily grind. He spends most of his time at school locked in the janitor’s closet, his only safe haven from the constant ridicule spurred by his speech impediment. Things at home aren’t much better. Older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza), who seems burdened with an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia, alternates between his merciless tormentor and advice-giving sibling. Dad moves out, and Hal’s only friend Heston (Aaron Yoo) effectively moves in, as his father begins dating Hal’s mother, guaranteeing an abundance of awkward meals. Our hero’s luck seems to change when Ginny (Anna Kendrick), the school’s prissy debate star, mysteriously recruits Hal to the team. But all is not as it seems, and he soon finds himself faced with a heart-shattering betrayal.
Though Blitz incorporates Napoleon Dynamite-style absurdist humor throughout, the movie sets itself apart because of the total sincerity he imbues in every scene. From start to finish the film boasts an authentic, lived-in feel that could only emerge from a maker fully in sync with his narrative. Visually, the filmmaker enhances our sense of Hal’s isolation by frequently framing the character apart from others, either riding his bike alone, chasing after his teammates, or staring out to sea on one of the Jersey Shore’s countless boardwalks. Blitz’s affection for the setting, warts and all, is made apparent by the ways his camera opens it up, gliding above the rooftops of Trenton and tracking Hal on his bike rides. The actors successfully shape their characters into unique individuals, with Thompson particularly standing out for the hesitant physicality with which he conveys Hal’s weaknesses. The tonally varied and distanced interplay between Thompson, Piazza and Yoo, who seem perpetually wary of one another, further underwrites the urgency of Hal’s quest for self-contentment.
Finally, the film affirms its real world sensibility by refusing to submit to any of the easy, crowd-pleasing clichés typical of such a story. There are no winners or losers in a conventional sense and no big climactic debate. Blitz bypasses such pedestrian pursuits in favor of the greater thrill of watching Hal mature and develop the self-confidence required to make something of himself, even with that awful stutter. Rocket Science achieves catharsis borne out of everyday life’s small victories, not manufactured melodrama. Above all else, it deserves to find its audience for that rare and rewarding feat.
© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.
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