Film review of Rocket Science

This review appeared in the Australian Jewish News on Thursday 1 July 2010.

Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz

Starring Anna Kendrick, Reece Daniel Thompson, Nicholas D’Agosto and Vincent Piazza

“Rocket Science” is an unusual high school teen movie:  it is made by adults particularly for adults.  This may be why the film took a full three years to be released in Australia (it first screened in the USA in 2007, when it won a best director award at the Sundance Film Festival), and also possibly why it has failed to attract a large audience.  What a shame, because “Rocket Science” is one of the most interesting films about adolescence and maturity to come along in many years.

“Rocket Science” tells the story of a nerdy New Jersey high schooler with a stutter who joins the debate team in order to overcome his affliction, and is written and directed by Oscar-nominated Jewish writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (best documentary in 2002 for “Spellbound”).   What gives this film such unusual emotional resonance is that it is actually Blitz’s own story, dramatised for the screen.

Set in suburban “Plainsboro” High School, the film opens on New Jersey state debating finals where prize Plainsboro High debater Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) decides to drop out and walk off the competition, to the frustration and fury of his partner Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick).  Ginny later identifies Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) – despite his debilitating stutter – as her next protégé because, as she explains, “Tortured people are the best.  Maybe it’s because they have a deep recourse of anger.”

Beset by a bullying, thieving older brother (played by Vincent Piazza) and recently separated parents, Hal is not exactly a winner in the high school achievement stakes.  He’s very smart, but tongue-tied, inarticulate and such a dork that where other students carry backpacks, Hal lugs his books in a suitcase with wheels.

The American high school film is a well-trod genre.  From “Risky Business” and “The Breakfast Club” to the “American Pies” to “Clueless” to “Mean Girls”, it is so popular that it has spawned its own academic literature.  “Rocket Science” fits in to the dorky-guy suburban subset of the genre, closest to “Rushmore”, “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Thumbsucker” in look, tone and feel.  It is also shot in and around Trenton, New Jersey (last seen in the 1984 high school film “Baby, It’s You”) and Baltimore, Maryland, presenting an “anywhere America” reminiscent of the film “Election”.  These are the boring (and not mean) streets of New Jersey (“there was the nothingness of Plainsboro, New Jersey”), filled with quirky characters and a bizarre sexuality lying under the surface of most of the adult interactions.

The film has many pleasures, the major one being a clever, literate script with an ironic, knowing and intelligent voice over – clearly the metaphoric (although not actual) voice of Blitz himself, with droll statements such as “Eventually all of this would pass and give way to embellishment and distortion”.  One of the achievements of “Rocket Science” is in its acting; here is an opportunity to see Anna Kendrick in one of her first roles – shot well before her fame in “Up in the Air” and the “Twilight” movies.  Comic Jonah Hill also appears briefly, well before his current star turn in “Get Him to the Greek”.

While Hal is not identified Jewish, he comes directly out an adolescent ironic tradition that partly has roots in Woody Allen and partly in the madcap adventures of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”.  Most of the other characters in the film are Jewish, including a hilarious turn by a school counsellor played by Maury Ginsberg.

The hilarious opening sequence of the film is available here:

And the official trailer of the movie is available here:

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