by Bill Gallagher
“Rocket Science” is one of those quirky independent movies whose strangeness
doesn’t get in the way of its appeal. It’s like a woman you meet whose unexpected words
and ways will stay with you long after that first encounter. Even if she is a little weird.
If you find yourself seduced by the unusual, intrigued by idiosyncrasies, and charmed by
someone unconventional, you will appreciate “Rocket Science.”
On the surface it sounds pretty formulaic: A geek who stutters falls for the queen of the
debate team when she recruits him on a school bus to be her partner in a bid for the New
Jersey State Debate Championship. Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) falls hard for Ginny
Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) even though she tells him she “ferreted” him out for the debate
team because “deformed people are the best because they have a deep resource of anger.”
I’ve never understood why some people stutter. But I’m fairly certain it’s not because
whatever the cause, Ginny underestimates Hal. Not his debating abilities, but his
emotional stamina. He’s a child of divorce with a borderline-abusive older brother named
Earl (Vincent Piazza). He really has very little going for him. This is a kid fixated on
trying to say the word “pizza” in the food line at school, only to fail repeatedly, ending up
with the fish special. This is a kid who passes up a backpack as the means of carrying his
books and opts for the type of rolling suitcase that senior citizens tie colored yarn to so
they can tell it from all the other ones just like it in the luggage carousel at the airport.
But once he thinks Ginny might be his girlfriend, there’s no stopping him. And therein
lies the appeal of “Rocket Science.” Sounds trite, I know, but it’s not always the prize
that’s important, it’s the struggle to get it.
Maybe winning the New Jersey State Debate Championship isn’t really the point of his
struggle. Maybe getting Ginny isn’t either. Maybe it’s just being able to say the word
pizza instead of “puh puh puh puh puh” and then pointing to a slice. (Only to have the
hair-netted school lunch lady say, “Plain or pepperoni?” Aaaarrrggghhh!) Maybe
we’ve ALL got our eyes on the wrong prize.
That’s the thing about independent movies. They don’t necessarily provide the easy
answers mass-appeal movies must in order to succeed. Left a little confused when the
ending credits roll? Get over it.
Jeffrey Blitz won the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Festival for “Rocket
Science.” He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2003 for
“Spellbound.” It’s as if having dealt with the true stories of overachievers who can spell
really well, he developed an appreciation for the fact that each individual kid could have
a backstory that would stand on its own. Quirks and all, those spellers were still kids who had to deal with adults and all their “issues.” That over-sized rolling suitcase that Hal
Hefner uses to haul his books to school is the one his father left behind when he left Hal’s
mom and moved out of their suburban New Jersey home. It’s not much of a stretch to
suggest that the son is burdened with the father’s baggage but makes the best of it.
Even though she’s mean and manipulative, Ginny manages to make Hal believe in
himself. Or at least believe that she really likes him despite the obvious mismatch. She’s
cute. She’s smart. She’s witty in an evil way. She’s successful. He’s none of the above.
Yet when she tracks him down to the janitor’s closet where he hides from the rest of the
world, he goes for the big makeout moment. And she goes for it. But don’t get your
hopes up. You’ll only find yourself cheering Hal on because he needs the win, not
because she’s worth winning.
Eventually Ginny dumps Hal. And that’s when he starts to think the only way he can win
her back is by winning the New Jersey State Debate Championship. Poor deluded lad that
he is, he tracks down one of her former debate partners Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas
D’Agosto). He was the best they’d ever seen at Plainsboro High School, but he suddenly,
inexplicably lost his passion for debating. Hal tracks him down in Trenton where he’s
working at a dry cleaner. Eventually he convinces Ben to take him on as a partner, stutter
and all. The two try mightily to overcome that stutter, eventually deciding that by singing
his arguments Hal can make it through.
If you don’t think at this point that maybe he has a chance of avenging his mistreatment
at Ginny’s hands, you are way too much of a realist. Far be it from me to let you know
how it turns out.
What director Blitz has managed to do is update the story of the boy who doesn’t seem to
fit in and is surrounded by people who only want to make his life more difficult. In some
ways “Rocket Science” reminded me of “Leave It to Beaver.” Well, if Ward and June
Cleaver were divorced and The Beav had to deal with dysfunctionality maybe. But the
point is, any man who once wondered if he’d find his way — in other words every man
— can relate to the rejection and resiliency that go hand-in-hand in “Rocket Science.”
Someone tells Hal, “Go back to being the way you were before you tried to exceed your
expectations.” Which he refuses to do. Someone else says, “The fights you fight today
are the fights you fight until you die.” And he realizes that’s right.
Like last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Rocket Science” will find an audience attracted
to the spin it gives to competition. Was there any way Olive was going to win the beauty
pageant? No. So how did we get caught up in the idea that she might? It was that winning
or losing, as traditionally defined, didn’t really matter. Instead, it was about the lessons
learned by making the effort to go for it.
There’s nothing too distinctive about Blitz’s style. It serves his story with sterile suburban
landscapes, some clever edits and no musical score but a soundtrack made up of
songs that say even the alienated can find adventure in life’s struggles. Blitz has directed a couple of episodes of the successful NBC comedy “The Office,” which, like “Rocket
Science,” is driven as much by the quirkiness of the characters as by the story. As Hal,
Thompson does a nice job blending the angst of an outsider and the enthusiasm of a
striver. Piazza as his brother Earl is too insecure to be really evil, but he’s scary the way
older brothers can be. In a small role as the only member of the high school Philosophy
Club is Jonah Hill, who played one of the stoned slackers in “Knocked Up” and is now
starring in “Super Bad.” When he threatens to beat Hal up in the library because he’s
interrupting his reading of “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas you know you’re in
the presence of some twisted comic characters.
Bill Gallagher is the News Director of AM 860 KPAM - the Talk Station, and he writes
the monthly movie column for BNW.
BrainstormNW - September 2007