Film-Forward Review: [ROCKET SCIENCE]

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Reece Thompson as Hal Hefner
Photo: Jim Bridges

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Written & Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz.
Produced by: Effie T. Brown & Sean Welch.
Director of Photography: Jo Willems.
Edited by: Yana Gorskaya.
Music by: Eef Barzelay.
Released by: Picturehouse/HBO Films.
Country of Origin: USA. 98 min. Rated R.
With: Reece Daniel Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D’Agosto, Margo Martindale, Lisbeth Bartlett, Vincent Piazza, Maury Ginsberg, Stephen Park, Aaron Yoo, Josh Kay & Denis O’Hare.

Whereas: high school debating provides a structure for smart kids amidst emotional adolescent chaos and fractured family. Resolved: writer/director Jeffrey Blitz has created an unpredictably delightful, funny, and touching coming of age story.

During a year in the woeful life of Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), each season is introduced by a different teen couple reenacting Rodin’s The Kiss. (The adults around him seem equally libidinous.) While narration has been overused since The Wonder Years, the voice here is one Hal hears in his head and that he wishes he actually had. Instead, he embarrassingly and erratically stutters, exacerbated by attacks from his bullying brother and immune to the gimmicky solutions from his school therapist.

As the voiceover asks “Can a voice travel from one person to another?” handsome Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto) loses his at the New Jersey State Debate Championships, infuriating his partner Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a Jersey Girl cross between Harry Potter’s Hermione and Election’s Tracy Flick. The next season, she hones in on Hal on the school bus to mold him as a replacement. Cute, smart, and sassy – who wouldn’t pick debate over the philosopher’s club to be with her? But Hal hasn’t quite taken into account what it means to fall for a girl who reveres winning – the debate team becomes the battle ground for escalating confrontations of love and revenge.

It’s refreshing to see a high school where the trophies are for brains not brawn. As befits a film made by a former state champion, this is the first to accurately portray competitive speed-talking policy debates, with montages of varsity members training novices, extensive library research lugged around in tubs, and weekends in classrooms facing judges and timers scoring the affirmative vs. negative teams on flow charts. The young actors well capture how debaters turn every conversation into a formidable argument. As the determined Ginny advises, “Top debaters never really believe in anything,” especially when the topic is teen abstinence.

Like Breaking Away, the high school competition is an incidental setting for growing up in a quirky family in a suburban neighborhood where class differences are a continuing undercurrent. Hal’s small house gets a lot more crowded with his mom’s new boyfriend and his son, especially compared to the statelier homes on Ginny’s block.

Though set in New Jersey, Blitz resists Springsteen references for music that provides marvelous commentary on the action. The Violent Femmes’ exuberant “Blister in the Sun” has been a teen anthem since its iconic use in My So-Called Life, but it’s also satirically appropriated here as a parents’ piano and cello duet leading to foreplay.

Though one of the captivating strengths of Blitz’s documentary Spellbound, which also celebrated word power, was the attention to Asian-American pride, portrayals here uncomfortably emphasize geeky Napoleon Dynamite-like alienation a bit too much, though the Korean parent is a judge and the Indian student a champion.

Though making good movies isn’t rocket science, this original sweet and funny film deserves a gold star in Blitz’s permanent record. Nora Lee Mandel
August 10, 2007



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