Rocket Science (2007)
Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick. Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz.
“It’s one of those two, love or revenge,” says ninth-grader Hal Hefner in explaining his motivation. It’s the kind of rationale that can turn a nice, lightly absurd teen comedy into something dark or cynical, but Rocket Science tiptoes on the tipping point, does a couple of those oh-no-I’m-losing-my-balance arm-waving things, then floats gently back to earth, its parasol of earnestness setting it down right where it should, in the land of hope and optimism.
Hal is a stammerer. It’s not fair: his mother, father, and brother have all kinds of problems, but their problems don’t cause them ridicule or loneliness. Hal can’t speak up in class even when he’s the only one who knows the answer his teacher is trying incompetently to wring out of her students. His counselor doesn’t know what to do with him, saying, “It’s really a shame you’re not hyperactive, because that I know well.” When he’s presented in the lunch line with the choice of pizza or fish, he can’t spit the word “pizza” out, and is stuck with an unidentifiable piece of fish.
But then Ginny Ryerson recruits him for the debate team. She’s won every award in high-school policy debate except the state championship, and she wants him to be her partner in her final chance at that last trophy. She’s a senior, and she’s smart and pretty, and she convinces him that his brains and insight are exactly what she needs in a debate partner. That stammering stuff will work itself out.
That’s a heck of a premise. Add excellent acting, smart direction, a silly but realistic presentation of high-school campus life, and a script that remembers how bizarre any fifteen-year-old’s existence feels to the fifteen-year-old and to everyone around him, and you get a pretty good teen movie. If you can look at this film and feel the slightest compassion for its characters – all of them – you can understand why I loved teaching ninth-graders for sixteen years. Director Jeffrey Blitz also directed one of my top-five documentary films of all time, Spellbound, about the National Spelling Bee, and it’s clear he gets this weird place young people occupy, crammed somewhere between their upbringings, their environments, and their emerging, independently thinking selves. Figuring out where their places are and finding their voices shouldn’t be rocket science, Hal suggests, but Hal doesn’t know yet that rocket science is a piece of cake compared to “all this, you know? Everything.”