Rocket Science (2007)

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Rocket Science
Dir. Jeffrey Blitz
Premiered at Sundance January 19, 2007

In the 2000s, a popular way to discredit an indie movie was to point out any similarities it might have to another indie movie. That’s how I first heard about Rocket Science; in a Cracked listicle that read “I preferred this movie when it was called Rushmore. And while that wasn’t reason enough to look into it for this project, I did come across some positive reviews that pushed me over the edge.

Reece Thompson stars as Hal Hefner, a shy teenager with a painful stutter who is approached out of the blue by debate team ace Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). Ginny constantly represses her personal feelings in a misguided attempt to hone her craft; mistaking her infatuation with Hal for paternalism, she encourages him to join her on the debate team.

When their hormones briefly prevail, Ginny freaks out and transfers to a private school– and rival debate team. Hal, overwhelmed by his involuntary attraction to her and subsequent sense of betrayal, falls apart inside.

Rocket Science isn’t without its flashes of brilliance. Director Jeffrey Blitz films Kendrick with the furtive, distinctly innocent gaze of a lovesick teenager, something most of us will recognize, but which I have never before seen on film. He also succeeds at framing debate as a hyper-competitive pseudo-sport, with Ginny the aloof and superstitious pitcher/center/quarterback. Having gone to a school where speech and debate kids were popular and got letter jackets, I can testify to the accuracy of this depiction.

For the most part, however, the film is confused. The narration is pretentious, unnecessary, and out of place. The original score is hyperactive and overloud. The visuals, by contrast, are drab and unsaturated to the point of distraction. The film is also teeming with gratuitous darkness around the edges; Hal’s mother (Lisbeth Bartlett) perpetuates a cycle of familial dysfunction, his brother (Vincent Piazza) is an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac; while Ginny’s child neighbor and Hal’s confidant (Josh Kay) is clearly a disturbed character. I can’t lie and say I didn’t recognize something authentically youthful in the story, but what should have been a poignant and grounded coming-of-age tale is wrapped in off-putting quirk, a meandering script, and tone-deaf post-production.

It has nothing in common with Rushmore, by the way.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
Barry Bonds is namedropped. Nick D’Agosto performs, in his tenth year of playing teenagers, and his character insists that inner city living is due for a comeback. He’s the only person whose mellifluous dialogue really fits.

Additional Notes
Jonah Hill has a minor role as the leader of the school’s philosophy club. “We read everything, but no Hegel.” It’s the funniest thing in the movie.

How Did It Do?
Rocket Science was a flop, even by the standards of tiny indie movies, grossing $755,744 against a $4.5 million budget upon general release, and placing it among lowest-grossing films of the year. It was unexpectedly also a critical darling, earning an 84% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Among the film’s biggest boosters was Bob Mondello, who called it “conventionally unconventional.” I’d rather save that description for the next movie.

Rocket Science was also only the second film performance by Anna Kendrick, who would blow up the following year with her involvement in the Twilight films and eventually reunite with Jeffrey Blitz for 2017’s Table 19.

Next Time: The Savages

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