Judge Clark Douglas was going to write this review in a mind-bending manner that only rocket scientists could understand. Then he realized that this movie wasn't even about science, much less rockets.
Life is easier done than said.
It's appropriate to begin the opening statement of this review with the opening statement of the film I am reviewing…which, oddly enough, happens to be an opening statement.
Facts of the Case
A young high school student named Ben Wekselbaum (Nicolas D'Agosto, Heroes) steps up to the podium. It's a big high school debate, a large audience watching in great anticipation. You see, Ben is about to make a searing, quickly delivered statement on why socialism would benefit farmers. That's potentially a hard point to make, but Ben could make any point in a ruthlessly effective manner. He's a master of debate; he can convince anyone of anything at a speed of hundreds of words per minute. Ben launches into his opening statement, and his team partner Ginny (Anna Kendrick, Camp) watches with confident pleasure. Ben is doing brilliantly, and she's just waiting to step in and seal the deal. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Ben's words slow to a crawl, and then he stops completely. He stands on the stage, silent. His words are lost, and so is the debate.
This is not Ben's story.
Over the course of the next semester, Ginny attempts to find a new debate partner. It's going to be difficult to replace someone of Ben's talent. Ginny determines to replace a partner who lost his words with a partner who has a great deal of trouble finding his words: Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson, The Sandlot 2). Hal is an intelligent student who has a stuttering problem; attempting to tell the lunch lady that he would like a slice of pizza is a daily struggle. Ginny cavalierly informs Hal that students with disabilities make the best debate partners, because they have something to be angry about.
This is Hal's story.
All high school students struggle at some point with trying to express themselves in some way. Any teenager will tell you that it's just not as easy as it might seem. Being caught in that world between childhood and adulthood, trying to deal with raging hormones, and facing the suddenly serious trials and tribulations of love is just plain hard. When you place all of these difficulties against the backdrop of public high school, sometimes it can be positively agonizing for teenagers to successfully relate the way they feel to someone else. For Hal Hefner, this problem is quite literal: He is actually unable to express the way he feels.
Hal's problem is a torturous one, a problem that Rocket Science addresses with kind understanding and painful humor. Watching Hal attempt to convey his complex thoughts through the filter of his maddening speech problems reminded me a little bit of Albert Finney's character in Under the Volcano. In that film, we had an alcoholic who desperately tried to work his way through his mental fog to tell others what he was thinking and feeling. That must be painful, but I imagine it's even more painful for Hal, whose mind is sharp, clear, and brimming with thoughts. He just can't express himself with any sort of complexity or clarity due to his stuttering.
As a study of communication among adolescents, Rocket Science succeeds admirably. This is partially due to the excellent performance of young Reece Thompson as Hal. Thompson, a small, wiry fellow who looks considerably younger than he is, hits all the right notes here. He captures that building frustration as he speaks, that bitterness at being unable to convey the brilliant complexities his mind contains. "I-I-I'm j-just full of r-re-retorts," he sighs. Anna Kendrick makes an excellent foil as the fast-talking Ginny, zooming through her lines of dialogue with smart efficiency. I also really enjoyed Vincent Piazza's (The Sopranos) odd performance as Earl, Hal's kleptomaniac brother.
The film was written and directed with care by Jeffrey Blitz, who also made the very good documentary Spellbound. Blitz has a great deal of understanding when it comes to this particular subject matter, as he himself was also a stuttering young man who joined the debate team (but he informs us the similarities to Hal stop there). Blitz presents a refreshing, unique look at high school. This isn't the typical movie territory centered on nerds, jocks, and cheerleaders; Blitz correctly sees high school as something far more complex than what we are ordinarily given.
The film looks and sounds solid, as HBO has given us a perfectly acceptable transfer. A few early moments seem a little bit on the flat side, but never distractingly so. Apart from a noteworthy overhead shot, Rocket Science isn't exactly a visually striking film; it's a dialogue-heavy character study that doesn't beg for a knockout transfer. Even so, it could have looked just a wee bit better. Sound is fine, though most of the sound design seems to take a backseat to Eef Barzelay's inventive (but occasionally irritating) original score and songs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I liked the meat and potatoes of Rocket Science, I did find a few of the side dishes to be a little less than impressive. Blitz litters the film with all kinds of quirky supporting characters, many of which feel a little too goofy or odd-for-the-sake-of-being-odd to believe. Steve Park (you may remember him from that awkward dinner scene with Frances McDormand in Fargo) is quite funny as the new boyfriend of Hal's mother, but his character seems to have walked in from a different movie. The same can be said of Josh Kay as Hal's strange friend who seems to exist only to say and do peculiar things. There are 15 minutes or so of scenes that probably ought to have been cut or altered in some way; they take the movie down interesting but fruitless rabbit trails.
Also, the bonus features on the DVD are quite thin. There's a 12-minute making-of featurette that is basically just a fluff piece, even if it does have an interesting comment or two from the director. The only other extra is a rather unimaginative Clem Snide music video. The most interesting thing about this is watching just how bad Eef Barzelay is at lip-synching. HBO has never been very good about adding interesting extras to their film releases, and Rocket Science is just another in a long-line of HBO DVDs that are lacking in the bonus features department.
Rocket Science has some minor flaws here and there, and this is hardly an ideal DVD presentation, but it's worth a rental at the very least. At its best, the film is a very moving and insightful study on a worthwhile topic, and I'm happy to say that it maintains that level of quality for most of it's duration. Fans of offbeat but sympathetic high school films like Welcome to the Dollhouse, Rushmore, and Election are sure to like Rocket Science as well. Check it out.
HBO is guilty of failing to provide extras of interest for this DVD release,
but the film itself is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• The Making of Rocket Science
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