After his festival-friendly documentary Spellbound hit the scene at several locations (including Toronto, South By Southwest and Tribeca), filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz found himself an overnight sensation, so he did what any suddenly successful filmmaker would do: He tried something a little different ... but not too different, and the result is Rocket Science, a festival-friendly comedy/drama very much in the vein of Thumbsucker, Art School Confidential and Napoleon Dynamite. Tailor-made to appeal to the kinds of audiences who regularly show up at the Sundance Film Festival, Rocket Science is certainly well-made and heartfelt enough to earn some praise -- but it's also more than a little familiar, and (despite several excellent performances) it's not all that consistently funny a piece. Quirky, colorful and filled with typically oddball characters, sure, but not all that funny.
Young Canadian actor Reece Thompson plays Hal Hefner, a New Jersey high school nobody who has two bickering parents, one amazingly obnoxious older brother and a speech impediment that would give Porky Pig a run for his money. When his school's debating hero (Nicholas D'Agosto) has a mild breakdown and hits the road, the astoundingly ambitious (and rather adorable) Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) enlists Reece, serious stutter and all, to join her debating activities. But poor Hal has a whole lot more to worry about than schoolboy crushes, public speaking and a nasty stuttering problem: His parents are splitting up, his brother is a klepto, his school advisor is a clueless chap and his self-confidence is at an all-time low -- even for a 15-year-old.
For all its quirky characterizations, semi-clever dialogue and convention-defying plot contortions, Rocket Science is a fairly schizophrenic affair. It's as if Blitz wants his main character to struggle through puppy love, hero worship, parental strife, normal insecurities and a really pronounced stutter -- but each of these components feel like their own separate mini-movie. Rocket Science is a pretty scattershot affair, with some stretches perfectly entertaining and surprisingly insightful -- and others that seem wedged in almost at random. As a first-time writer/director of a feature film, Blitz has all the good intentions (and colorful characters) in the world, but Rocket Science suffers from a herky-jerky narrative delivery and a clear intention of including scenes (and maybe even a few characters) that don't add much to the movie as a whole.
That said, there's still just enough wit, warmth, weirdness and originality to consider Rocket Science worthy of a ticket ... although more likely a Netflix rental. (Plus there's not a weak performance to be found in the film) For the most part the flick feels like the same old "semi-normal kid desperately struggling to grow up in the face of outright wackiness" material seen in tons of recent festival flicks, only with a new (and admittedly entertaining) coat of pain. By the time the movie winds to a close (with perhaps two more "finales" that it actually needs) it becomes clearly evident that Rocket Science is deeply steeped in autobiographical material, which makes me think a lot of first-time filmmakers love nothing more than explaining how horribly, comically painful their adolescence was. But by now, we pretty much get it.