2007Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Cast: Maury Ginsberg, Anna Kendrick, Reese Thompson
effery Blitz's self deprecating vision of New Jersey in Rocket Science exists somewhere between a Far Side comic and a movie like Harold and Maude. Like Gary Larson and Hal Ashby (a director Blitz gushes about), Blitz makes the sad moments in Rocket Science are morbidly humorous because he so readily delights in these situations. Because of this, Rocket Science becomes a fresh and aggressive comedy, constantly surprising the viewer with its own spunk.
Rocket Science is a bittersweet story about a painfully dorky kid, Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), and his family recovering from a tumultuous divorce which sealed them away in a part of the monochromatic, grainy texture of the New Jersey suburbs. While Hal's brother reacts to their new living situation by constantly stealing (part of the self described “agenda” he constantly brags about), and his mother begins sleeping with the single father of one of Hal's few friends, Hal finds it harder to be part of his surroundings because of an often debilitating stutter. Beyond the usual feeling of anonymity one gets from being a mousy freshman in high school, he can't master simple tasks like ordering a slice of pizza from the school cafeteria. So while most kids his age are busy fantasizing constantly about sex or sports, he frequently imagines himself as “the kind of person who could say what they wanted whenever they wanted.”
Then he meets a girl. Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) is appealing to him because she's nearly the exact opposite of Hal in every way. While he fumbles along slowly with his speech, she talks so quickly you're not quite sure often of what she's actually saying. As the local celebrity of her debate team, she holds herself with a passionless corporate poise. Anna Kendrick is perfect in this part; she's attractive but eerily off-putting as the organization kid, becoming a successful student by adopting a dystopian vision of high school. “Real debaters don’t believe in anything, it makes it harder to argue both sides,” she says briskly to Hal at one moment. Ginny quickly recruits Hal to the debate team, telling him that “deformed people are the best debaters, perhaps because of a deep-rooted sense of anger.” Hal, noticed and appreciated all at once, falls hopelessly in love and sets himself on learning to argue coherently on the subject of abstinence-only education.
I could go on praising the story, but what really makes the movie are the characters. Perhaps Blitz saw he couldn't let the plot rest with simple stereotypes and caricatures of nerds because, well, everyone in the movie is a nerd. They all have bizarre and wonderful philosophies on life they’ve learned from a life spent in a maddeningly average section of New Jersey. There's an older couple you only meet for two scenes who, in the most Far Side-like moment, sit plumply by a piano and ask Hal if he'd like to watch “an old couple resolve their differences through music therapy.” Their son Lewis entertains himself by wearing a bra and flipping furtively through their Karma Sutra book, bragging to Hal about how his dad has done every position in the book “at least once, sometimes as much as ten times.” My personal favorite is Hal's speech therapist, Lewinsky, who walks around with large round glasses, pudgy cheeks, and enough unsightly body hair to look like some kind of exhausted and depressed teddy bear. He's a terrible speech coach, but too lazy or self-righteous to ever admit it. Instead he has Hal sit through yogic breathing exercises while he mumbles stories about his own life.
A therapist who only wants to talk about himself is just one example of one of Blitz's strongest themes in Rocket Science: in a world where all the children are trying so hard to be like adults, grasping every responsibility they receive and every chance at maturity they find, the adults are all sullenly try to reenact their childhood, taking every chance to ignore their children and savor the meaningless void of leisure time. Blitz avoids all the temptations of a feel-good story Rocket Science could have easily become. That's what I love about this movie; it keeps surprising you, raising new elements and confronting old ones, until the very end. When Hal finally confronts his father in the touching final scene, you see for the first time in Blitz's emotionally apocalyptic New Jersey two people, no matter how dysfunctional they may be, really communicating as two human beings. After seeing Rocket Science, you'll wonder how often that's really possible.
Rocket Science is currently in limited release.
By: Yannick LeJacq
Published on: 2007-08-22