Unfortunate as it is, there's a new type of genre out on the streets, waving its angsty little hand in our faces each year -- the "quirky, teen-related Sundance film." It's almost as if these films were designed to play at Sundance; their main character almost always has a strange disability (be it thumb-sucking, vagina dentata or stuttering), their family is, of course, dysfunctional, their best friend is a creepy serial killer in training and their love life is in shambles. While Rocket Science does get a lot of things right, it's hard not to label it as "just another Sundance film" -- the kind that's amusing to watch, but easily forgettable.
The nice thing about Rocket Science is that, more often than not, it's honest. It doesn't expect a lot from its characters, and in doing so the film continually keeps the audience guessing. Just when you thought the plot was heading in one direction, it spins around and heads the other way. The triumphs are personal -- more internal than external -- and while the mainstream audience might be turned off by a film that doesn't hand you the "happy ending" on a silver platter, it might be a nice change of pace heading into the latter part of a summer that's been full of dumb, predictable, popcorn fluff.
Director Jeffrey Blitz took a real chance on this film; prior to Rocket Science, his 2002 documentary (and feature directorial debut) Spellbound was nominated for a best documentary Oscar. But instead of milking the spelling bee in narrative form, or heading out to document more teens doing teen-like things, he tapped into his awkward upbringing and tried to make it entertaining. Like Blitz, Hal Hefner (the brilliant, up-and-coming Reece Thompson) is a quiet teenager coping with a debilitating stuttering problem. His parents have abruptly split up, his older brother is a bully and his mother has since begun dating an Asian judge (who requests that everyone, including Hal, call him Your Honor). Not to mention the judge's teenage son is "sexually confused," but in a real creepy kind of way.
Hal's problems don't begin and end at home; his stuttering issue has made him a real outcast at school -- forcing him to see a counselor who doesn't have the proper training to help. Things change when Ginny (Anna Kendrick), the outgoing and lively star of the school's debate team, confronts Hal and makes it her mission to transform this stutterer into a speech wizard. Problem is, Ginny has other plans as well. From there, the film follows Hal on a personal journey -- one that includes balancing feelings of love for the first time. But when you're a teenager, the line between love and obsession is blurred, and instead of climbing out of the empty hole his speech problems have dumped him in, Hal soon winds up spiraling down even deeper.
Whether or not you enjoy Rocket Science depends partly on how you handle Hal's stuttering. Thompson does a fantastic job with the role; he never falls out of character and is, perhaps, the most convincing and believable part of the film. But you have to be willing to hang in there with him; some of the people I watched the film with couldn't get past the stuttering. It irritated them. It took them out of the story. And because Thompson is literally featured in every single scene of the movie, it's critical that you adapt to the stuttering early on or else you'll probably find yourself wanting to leave ... in a hurry.
That being said, as familiar as the film sometimes is, Blitz introduces a lot of unfamiliar elements. Having grown up in and around academic competitions (apart from stuttering, Blitz was also on his school's debate team), we get to see a side of teenage life that other films either stay away from or drown in clichés. Whoever thought high school debating would be so fascinating; wrought with drama, intrigue and romance? It's fun to watch an outsider try to succeed in a world full of outsiders, and for that reason alone, Rocket Science is worth the price of admission.