Details: (M), 97 mins , In Cinemas 17 June 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: High school student Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) stutters. On the evening his parents stop arguing and separate, 43 miles away at the state tournament, his school's legendary debater, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), goes blank mid-sentence, Ben's teammate Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) doesn't get a first-place trophy, and the world changes. That fall, to Hal's amazement, Ginny recruits him for the debate team, mentors him, and will be his partner. He still has his stutter, but he works hard and he falls in love with Ginny. On the day of the first debate of the season, the world changes again. From then until the day of the state tournament, Hal has a lot to sort out. Is love rocket science?
Don't sweat the small stuff.
Superficially, the high-school underdog at the centre of Jeff Blitz’s long-delayed Rocket Science is just another Napoleon Dynamite /Rushmore knock-off (when this film premiered in 2007, not too long after Napoleon Dynamite hit big, the clones came thick and fast).
Rocket Science does share many of the same qualities that made those films so memorable: a literate and idiosyncratic script; a cast of finely-etched and offbeat performances; and a spin on high-school hierarchies that posits its small-world setting and issues very firmly in a big-world metaphor.
But what makes Rocket Science unique (and, dare I say, better) than either Napoleon or Rushmore is that it is about a young man finding his feet in the world as it is, not about outsider changing the world. Napoleon and Rushmore forced their realities upon us; Hal Hefner is just a kid with a stutter, and the world is leaving him behind.
We first meet Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson) on the night that his parents separate. Bullied by his older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) and surrounded by friends that are every bit as invisible as he, Hal grasps a lifeline thrown to him by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick, displaying the same skills with quick, cutting dialogue that led to her Oscar nomination for Up In The Air, 2009). Ginny is the school debating team champion, and she enlists Hal as the unlikely new kid in the lead-up to divisional championships.
Thompson is terrific as the stuttering Hal. He conveys the torment of his serious affliction with a sad dignity, and his minimalist performance brings weight to every tilt of the head or raised eyebrow. Unlike Napoleon Dynamite, who created a world in which to live as a counterpoint to the world that wouldn’t have him, Hal is resigned to his fringe existence whilst at school. Thompson’s slow-burn reveal of Hal’s maturity and self-awareness is entirely convincing and utterly heartwarming. One hopes the film’s non-performance in the US (where it earned a meagre US$700,000 at the box office) doesn’t hinder his career, because he is an actor of tremendous potential.
To this point, writer/director Blitz (a one-man crusader for high-school literacy, having directed the hit spelling-bee documentary, Spellbound, 2002) has done little to distinguish the plot’s framework from a million other against-all-odds teen rom-coms. His words are wise and witty and his direction assured, but Rocket Science seems to be heading down a familiar path – boy-meets/loses/gets-girl.
But Blitz’s handling of the debate tournament reveals that this is not a film about sporting triumph, social acceptance or romantic fulfilment; instead it’s about a boy finding inner strength. The finale allows for a minor ‘Rocky’ moment of triumph, but it comes in the form of a self-congratulatory back-pat, not a rousing auditorium-filled standing ovation.
By the film’s end, Hal has not indulged in a wicked dance rendition (as in Napoleon Dynamite) nor staged a Vietnam War recreation (as in Rushmore). He’s just finally caught up to most other teenagers – confused about love and dissatisfied with life, but at least armed with a confident outlook to give adulthood his best shot. It may sound like a low-key way to end a film (and may account for the lack of love from the American movie-going public), but Rocket Science is a film about taking maximum pleasure out of life’s smallest victories.
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