Spellbound documentarian Jeffrey Blitz makes a successful transition to narrative with this coming-of-age comedy

Rocket Science

on August 10, 2007 by Ray Greene
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There's an odd thing that happens watching Jeffrey Blitz's funny and moving new high school comedy Rocket Science : cliches from other, lesser movies keep getting in the way. Blitz's premise is an ingenious variation on the usual underdog-outcast formula from pretty much every American high school movie that doesn't use its kids as targets for an axe-wielding maniac. Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), a congenital stutterer, is drafted by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), an aggressive debate team hottie, to substitute for her brilliant squad partner after the partner dries up onstage at the state championships and leaves school to become a drycleaner. Replacing a virile, articulate upperclassman with a stammering freshman seems a strange idea, but Ginny is so fearsome and even sociopathic in her self-confidence that, before he knows it, Hal is pretty well hooked.

With Hal on the squad, Rocket Science is ready to become a novel variation on a standard template, with the forensic sciences replacing spelling bees and dance contests as the agent of transformation for a lovable outsider into that fantasy figure from all childhoods: the universally admired and perfectly accepted version of the self. If things play out as usual, the protagonist will get the Girl with a capital G and go “from zero to hero” as the ad copyists would have it, all in 110 minutes or less. Roll credits, and hopefully open with at least $20 million in grosses.

Blitz knows the audience knows how to watch a movie like that, and he should: His 2003 documentary Spellbound (a clear inspiration for the debating milieu) helped spawn any number of the current “underdog” cliches, especially in the documentary world, where every other movie is now about a ragtag band of eccentric contestants. Blitz keeps playing with our received expectations, providing plausible devices for Hal to mutate from a frog with plosive trouble into a speechifying prince, only to have high school the way we remember it — hostile to our goals, indifferent to our fantasies — thwart Hal like a bullying hallway monitor at every pass.

Once Hal has to get up and speak in rooms full of hostile strangers, Rocket Science becomes a kind of slow-motion variation on the textbook Freudian actor's nightmare, where the dreamer finds him or herself on stage in front of a crowded house, unable to remember a single line. Since love and betrayal are involved, and because Thompson's Hal has something of Buster Keaton's raging hangdog stillness in his heart, watching Hal attempt to prove himself worthy of an unworthy love — like Galahad with a speech impediment — is at times excruciating. It's possible to imagine those with a phobia of public speaking hyperventilating or having seizures during the debate scenes, fraught as they are with real humiliation and petty treacheries.

It's enough to make a viewer yearn for some of the consoling fantasies Blitz is too truthful to offer up, but which still seem to wink like northern lights of mediocrity from just over the movie horizon. But Rocket Science makes no place for the usual bromides and homilies. When Hal asks his father what life and love are all about, Dad dutifully tells him it's about surrendering your belief that it all has to mean something, and the upper-class debate champion-turned-drycleaner's life-changing epiphany turns out to be that every day is pretty much like every other, and that trophies are mirages, handed out to the gullible to create an illusion of attainment and progress.

This is bleak, graveyard humor, bordering on nihilism, but Rocket Science manages to put it across and still retain its essential sweetness. Blitz here joins an elite group of humorists that includes Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne, the Zach Braff of Garden State and Todd Solondz before bitterness overtook his work. Rocket Science stands squarely within that increasingly significant modern tradition of American comedy that is not so much about losers as it is about loss. The saving grace is that the way Blitz defines it, “losing” claims everyone, including the filmmaker himself, which means nobody, not even a congenital outsider like Hal Heffner, ever really ends up trapped on the outside.

Distributor: Picturehouse
Cast: Reece Daniel Thompson and Anna Kendrick
Director/Screenwriter: Jeffrey Blitz
Producers: Effie Brown and Sean Welch
Genre: Comedy
Rating: R for some language and sexual material
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: August 10, 2007 NY/LA/SF
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