'Rocket Science': Inspiring Teen Tale Achieves Liftoff

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007

We've seen enough movies about the horror of being young and dorky -- and Lord knows how many of us have suffered through that larva stage. So why live through it again?

Because "Rocket Science" not only feels our collective pain, it makes us laugh wickedly at the memories. And Jeffrey Blitz's smart, deceptively lighthearted movie gives audiences an endearing nerd-messiah to revisit that angst for all of us and -- maybe, just maybe -- he'll end up in love and ahead. (Of course, we must asterisk this vicarious hope with the following proviso: In the teenager's life, anything bad can, and will, happen.)

Our messiah is Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), a New Jersey high school student with a debilitating stutter and such low self-esteem he always takes the path of least resistance. At the canteen, he orders fish instead of pizza because "fish" is easier to pronounce. And when the teacher asks, "What kind of a name is O. Henry?" he scrawls "nom de plume."

Only Hal knows how deep his waters run -- or thinks he does. That changes when the icy, smart, haughty and gorgeous Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) invites him to be her partner on the debating team. Ginny Ryerson? Ginny. Chose. Him.

Suddenly, his future is lit with purpose and, inevitably, love. Ah, hope. Oh, high school.

While this opening suggests a sappy beauty-and-the-geek romance, Blitz (who directed 2002's terrific spelling bee documentary, "Spellbound") opts for deeper, darker and wittier developments. After Hal pursues Ginny, and she -- despite her polar personality -- seems to be falling for him, the movie takes the first of many sharp turns.

"Rocket Science" shifts frequently from the un-romance at hand to Hal's relationships at home, with his mercilessly taunting older brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza), who likes to call him "Penelope," and his separated mom (Lisbeth Bartlett), who has fallen head over heels for the Korean small-claims judge next door.

We're never sure where the movie is taking us -- but that's its greatest asset. This peripatetic approach puts "Rocket Science" squarely in the company of cruel-is-cool films such as "Rushmore," "Donnie Darko," "Ghost World" and "Brick," in which the weapons of choice are hurtful words, observed irony and outright sarcasm; and in which the adults are frequently callous or clueless. (As one sage in "Rocket Science" observes: "The fights you fight today are the fights you fight till the day you die.")

In completely different roles, Thompson and Kendrick are a mutual delight -- he for his awkward delicacy and growing confidence, she for the way she hints -- with such subtlety, it's almost nonexistent -- that there might be a heart underneath that dry-ice brilliance. (Her high-speed debating skills, which she demonstrates by distilling an eight-minute speech into 10 seconds, are stunning.)

Although the stakes may seem banal -- how important, really, is winning a state debating championship? -- the psychic prize is more significant. We are forever longing for Hal to emerge, butterfly-like, from his spiritual cocoon. What's really at stake is his emotional future. In his everyday struggle to overcome his inarticulation, will he emerge in his adult years with permanent trauma or lasting glory?

Rocket Science (98 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema) is rated R for sexual content and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company