This smart comedy parses the ups and downs of adolescence.
The smart, idiosyncratic indie comedy "Rocket Science" is as incisive as an X-ray about adolescence, that terrible time of life when you are in love and angry and full of dreams and doubts and too young to do anything about it.
In his keenly witty sophomore film, Jeffrey Blitz (director of the lovely documentary "Spellbound") returns to high school, where academics are easy compared with such unfathomable puzzles as parents who break up, friends with secret agendas and fledgling romance.
Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) is a stutter-stricken kid who can't pronounce "pizza," so he always winds up with fish in the lunch line. The lunch lady can't identify what fish it is, exactly, so she labels it "general fish." Unfocused, alienated Hal has learned to settle for the general fish life dishes out, whether it's his chaotic home life or the rolling airport carry-on bag he uses in place of a backpack. His ambition is to sit quietly on the bus and not call attention to himself.
Then he's swept up by a hyperverbal whirlwind named Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). She's a top debater whose shot at the New Jersey state trophy was dashed last year when partner Ben Weskelbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto) suddenly dried up in midpresentation. Ginny, assigned to ferret out raw debating talent from the masses, announces to Hal, "I've ferreted you."
His stammer is an advantage, Ginny explains: "Deformed people are the best, because they have a deep resource of anger." Hal will be her partner, she declares, and they will win the trophy that is rightfully hers.
Hal's self-confidence grows as he helps Ginny compile her research, and their partnership begins to pick up a few notes of infatuation. But Ginny, who instructs Hal that great debaters have no convictions about the policies they defend and attack, is as conniving as she is forceful. Hal's response, when he realizes his true role in her devious scheme, is a self-improvement course and revenge plot more ambitious than anything he's ever attempted. If Charlie Brown set out to get even with Lucy against a background of acutely observed teen angst, it would play out something like this.
Blitz has a talent for creating distinctive characters and finding bright young actors to bring them vividly to life. Kendrick gives Ginny a steamroller bossiness that makes her a natural debate whiz and an instrument of torture in normal human interaction. D'Agosto is breathtaking as the charismatic and brilliant Weskelbaum, machine-gunning his speaking points like a rap god until he has the epiphany that debate is meaningless, and then falling into a monklike silence.
But the cornerstone of the movie is Thompson, whose stutter and saucer-sized eyes articulate feelings a lesser actor couldn't put across in a 10-minute monologue. The film never gets sappy about his wounded innocence -- this is definitely a comedy -- and Thompson rises to the challenge of his character's complexity. His drunken attack on Ginny's residence, culminating with the boast/confession "Um, there's a cello in your house now," is like something out of a surrealistic dream. His ability to convey Blitz's conviction that Hal's pain is simultaneously pitiable and funny makes the film what it is, a strong contender to become a student classic.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186