Aug 20, 2007

On Rocket Science

Enchanting in its self-effacing hyper articulateness, academy award nominated documentarian Jeffery Blitz has made a built for Sundance American Indie in “Rocket Science” that isn’t quite good to the last drop, but makes for an enjoyably awkward time anyway. Like fellow coming of age for a wily troublemaker kid movie “The Go-Getter”, also at Sundance 07’ although currently without distribution, “Rocket Science” employs a third person narration and other alienating affects in an attempt to engross the audience in the scatter psychology of a limited young man, with largely mixed results.

Blitz’s stuttering hero is Hal Hefner (the intriguing newcomer Reece Daniel Thompson) trapped with a dim witted, simultaneously brutal and tender brother Earl (Vincent Piazza), a mildly depressed father (Denis O’Hare) who, without explanation, leaves his wife (Lisbeth Barlett), a banal middle New Jersey woman and a mother who doesn’t quite know what to make of her life (Lisbeth Barlett). Hal’s alienation is deftly set up in Blitz’s skillfully comedic exposition, in which we also meet Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) the overachieving debate team captain who with her partner and lover Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto) strikes fear into the hearts of debate squads across the state of New Jersey. When Ben has a breakdown mid debate and relocates to the urban seclusion of Trenton, Ginny recruits Hal, the stutter, to replace him. But wait – why on Earth would she do that?

If this were a formulaic Hollywood effort, one which stresses the aesthetic and cultural unrealities of MTV as an accurate representation of adolescent life, she’d seduce him after plying hard to get, but her motives prove far tricker in Blitz’s script, which allows Kendrick to provide one of the most winning performances by a young actress in some time. The scenes in which the stuttering Thompson and the uber polished Kendrick square off are examples of pristine comedic timing married to smart, artfully inefficient writing. As she tries to turn him into the debater he will never be the logical, mainstream-oriented conclusion of the narrative we’ve come to expect from the set-up is gently subverted by Blitz’s keen understanding of the fact that few of us every overcome our central inadequacies, we just learn to live with the better. Or we don’t.

Still, there is a darker flip side to the tale that never really gets explored. What of the anomie which grips his family – his mother seems clueless how to make any of the men in her life happy and his brother is constantly on the verge of kicking the shit out of him? Denis O’Hare, terrific recently in films like “Half Nelson” and “The Babysitters”, barely gets the time of day. That more hay isn’t made out of this family obviously painful middle class existence, or out of the aftermath of Hal’s drunken, vengeful episode after learning that Ginny is dating an Indian debater from a rival team, which ends with Hal throwing a stringed instrument through the Ryerson’s living room window in the middle of the night, is a pity, but “Rocket Science” is built for a small seven figure sale, distribution of a few hundred screens and a strong life on DVD. Cut it some slack. Even if all these high schoolers are really in their twenties.