Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz first gained public notice with his 2002 documentary Spellbound, a fascinating look at contestants at the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee. For his follow-up, Blitz has gone the fiction route with Rocket Science, a story about a boy with a terrible stutter and a chaotic home life who joins the debate team in hopes of dating the popular girl in school.
I had heard Rocket Science described repeatedly as quirky. As a result, I resolved to do everything I could to see the film differently. But alas, Rocket Science is just plain quirky. Quirky like Little Miss Sunshine, Rushmore, or any Wes Anderson film, but with disappointing results.
Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is having a terrible time. His father has walked out on the family, leaving Hal with his mother who has already started to date a judge (Stephen Park) who is the father of a whacked-out classmate (Aaron Yoo). Hal is tormented by his thuggish, obsessive-compulsive older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza).
Reality tells us that there would be no reason for a guy who stutters like it's going out of style to join the debate team. However, the team is led by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a gorgeous girl with a serious superiority complex, reminiscent of Tracy Flick in Election. Ryerson wants to mold Hal into the perfect partner after her previous cohort, the good looking Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), froze during the championship match the previous year and cost her the trophy. Hal becomes Ginny's personal project; she intends to turn him into the perfect debating partner who will not fail. Totally smitten, Hal willingly goes along for the ride.
Hal plows on, determined to both impress Ginny and cure himself of his stuttering problem. Ben, who quit the debating team to work at a local laundry, offers to help Hal. He comes up with the idea of teaching Hal to debate by singing his argument along to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and showing off his newfound skills at the state competition.
The state competition is pure agony. Hal is forced to go through physical and mental torture just to get out the word, "okay," but he seems to bask in the small successes — he raises his arms in victory after he is able to get one more word out without a stutter.
Despite its accomplishments, Rocket Science doesn't work as a film on the most basic of levels — all of the people around Hal are laughing at him. Everyone in that school knows Hal has a speech impediment, yet nobody on the faculty attempts to help him before he is put on the spot in a debate. For me, that seems cruel. While other viewers may focus on Hal's sense of accomplishment, it is hard to watch Rocket Science and not see the cruelty. The ending of Rocket Science didn't leave me feeling like the story was really about a triumph over adolescent callousness, rather the film just ended.
The Rocket Science DVD includes a fairly standard documentary, "The Making of Rocket Science" and a music video for "I Love the Unknown" written by Eef Barzelay (who wrote much of the music for Rocket Science) and performed by Clem Snide. The film is presented in 16×9 aspect ratio and the audio is Dolby Digital 5.1. English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.