Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
I can think of no worse fate than to have a head full of thoughts and no way to express them. The lead character in Rocket Science has a stuttering problem, which makes it hard to express himself, but aside from that he’s a charming and clever little guy with a lot on his mind. His name is Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) and he lives in Plainsboro New Jersey, the emphasis on Plain. His brother is an uptight pain in the ass and his father just left the house and isn’t coming back anytime soon. So, you can imagine that when the head of the school debate team asks him to join, he jumps at the opportunity. It also doesn’t hurt that Hal thinks she’s a hottie.
You may be wondering why Hal with his stuttering problem would be asked to be on the debate team but as Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) says, “The wounded ones are often the best.” She also intuits that Hal can grow to be a solid debater. The issue at this year’s debate contest is abstinence, an issue that Hal feels strongly about. However, when Ginny asks Hal to come up with several arguments in favor of it, he makes it clear that he’d rather take the other side.
Speaking of the debate contest, we learn at the beginning of the film that last year’s New Jersey State High School Policy Debate Championships (say that ten times quickly) didn’t go as expected. It seems as though Ginny’s former partner, the brilliant Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) suddenly froze up during his argument and poor Ginny left without a trophy. Ginny tells Hal that he kind of reminds her of Ben except that Hal is “shorter and goofier.” You may be getting the idea that Ginny has only back-handed compliments for poor Hal, and while that may be true, he really doesn’t care because she’s cute, smart and she believes in him. Or does she?
You will see many reviews that call Rocket Science a “coming of age” film. I personally hate that expression, and I know I'm not alone. Maybe it’s because it’s used so often that it has lost its meaning. As a writer friend said, “You can call any film a coming of age story.” In Rocket Science our young protagonist Hal doesn’t necessarily make any monumental discoveries about life, and that’s what I like most about it.
We watch as Hal tries to deliver his speeches, but he’s never able to make it past the first few words. His stutter makes it difficult to not only get through his debate opening, but also to just get through the growing pains that any normal adolescent boy would experience. He has tried to work on his problem, but as his counselor says,” I wish you were hyperactive, then I could really work wonders.” Despite this, when it comes to Ginny he believes that actions speak louder than words with her, though as we learn, she may not have his best interests in mind.
Rocket Science isn’t a slick, smarmy teen film about a bunch of rich kids who are too sexy for their shirts. God knows we’ve seen enough of those lately. It isn’t a particularly smooth film either, playing more like a series of starts and stops. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact its awkwardness, much like Hal, is part of its charm. Writer/Director Jeffrey Blitz, who helmed the documentary Spellbound, seems interested in the pressures of our youth and he prefers to take characters that we would usually see as window dressing and make them the center of attention. Reece Daniel Thompson takes Hal’s speech impediment and spins it into comic gold, using the stutter as a timing device to deliver Hal’s cleverly written and often hilarious dialogue.
Whether or not Hal makes it through a debate doesn’t really matter. There is a series of events towards the end of the film that involve Hal and the former debate champ Ben Wekselbaum but Rocket Science doesn’t end in a predictable manner like so many of its predecessors. Hal will learn a bit about himself, but the greater questions will go unanswered, and that makes sense. While the film must end, Hal’s life is still in its learning stages. He will undoubtedly work his way through it, stutter and all.