The Reeler


August 9, 2007

Rocket Science

Blitz's feature follow-up to Spellbound an almost complete delight

Rocket Science is not a "Sundance movie." Yes, it premiered at this year's festival, and yes, it's a quirky, heart-warming story about misfits, and yes it is writer/director Jeffrey Blitz's follow-up to the quintessential nerd-doc, Spellbound. But Rocket Science never curdles into the intolerable realm where would-be "indies" like Garden State torment and browbeat audiences into submission with a combination of offbeat jokes and overt sentimentality. This isn't the tic-ridden posing and preening of well-heeled actors trading lower paychecks for ostensible street cred. The oddballs are kids; they can't help it.

When you're a weird nerd kid, you associate with other weird nerds. At least that's how it worked for this writer, and that's how it goes for Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson). At unprepossessing Plainsboro High, New Jersey, Hal's main goal is avoiding getting beaten up more than he does at home by inexplicably violent older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza). His best friend, such as he is, is Heston (Aaron Yoo), a creepy kid with the kind of pubescent mustache that comes from never having shaved in the first place, a monotone, and a perpetual, inexplicable smile that's more unnerving than endearing. Home's a disaster zone as well, with mom and dad suddenly split up.

The point is that Hal is hardly too quirky to be real: with his awkward stutter and more awkward friends, he's a textbook break-out kid, just waiting for someone to demonstrate normalcy. Enter Ginny (Anna Kendrick), debate team captain, precociously articulate, fast-talking and prone to smoking under unholy amounts of teen pressure. Most importantly for Hal, he's finally met someone with breasts who will actually talk to him. Ginny guesses that awkward Hal has enough pent-up anger -- whether he's aware of it or not -- to motivate him to do something great. Hal joins the team, disastrous stutter and all.

Rocket Science is so systematic in its subversion of every triumph-over-obstacles cliché that it's actually not terribly surprising that most of what you'd expect doesn't happen. What Rocket Science is "about" -- at least in a macro sense -- is exorcising the leftover demons of adolescence, confronting every embarrassment, then shrugging and refusing to care. Implicitly, the endearing dork protagonists have grown up to be the cool makers of/audience for this movie. At least, it would be implicit if the completely unnecessary narrator (Dan Cashman) didn't spell it all out in the closing minutes. What's great about Rocket Science -- characters just strange enough to remind you of the genuine oddness of a misspent childhood while also being far away enough to be funny -- becomes a crippling asset once the narration tries to bring them back into the mainstream. Heaven forbid anyone would think these kids grew up to be just as strange as they always were.

Rocket Science fails at its big project, but it's an almost total delight from moment to moment. Hal is an ingenious protagonist, as self-defeating as he is endearing, and his resoundingly unhelpful surroundings are perfectly drawn. Hal moves from classrooms made more depressing by their inspirational posters to even less inspiring suburban cul-de-sacs. At every step, Earl's festering rage, Heston's inability to even pretend to possess a single normal emotional reaction, and Ginny's precocious, almost unconscious sexuality seem exactly right.

Weird kids only know other weird kids, until they learn social norms and meet more well-adjusted kids. It's a truth I'll confirm, and something important to remember whenever Rocket Science seems to be veering into anything-for-a-laugh caricature. "If I'd had a less conventional childhood," grumbled my screening companion, "I might have liked it more." Exactly. Defending Rocket Science to those on another wavelength can be tough enough; canning that damned voice-over would have made it a lot easier.

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