Debate, He Must
Hal Hefner. He's smart. He's almost cute. He also stutters, badly. The awkward, verbally challenged teen (Reece Thompson) doesn't seem like a top candidate for his prestigious New Jersey high school debate team. But debate he must; the treacherous Ginny (Anna Kendrick) -- the smart, the beautiful, the gazillion articulate words out of her mouth a minute Ginny -- recruited him. Though his stutter shows no signs of going anywhere, Hal's got to prove he can debate with the best of them. Good luck. Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science, the follow-up to the enormously popular documentary Spellbound, takes this improbable storyline and makes it work.
There's a funny thing about coming of age movies; filmmakers invariably ask us to identify with the social outcast: the smart, funny awkward kid who is beat up, mocked, misunderstood, and overlooked in love. Blitz already demonstrated that he understood this type with Spellbound
, a documentary about eight teenagers' quest to win the national spelling bee: misfits, all of them. By training a sympathetic lens on their suffering, Blitz allowed us to experience each speller's joy and pain, and perhaps most poignant, relief with every correct word. He demonstrates equal if not superior skill at fiction. Hal Hefner's failure at the debate podium equals the emotional heartbreak of the disqualified spellers. His outrageous response to this failure, however, is downright thrilling.
An interesting cast of characters populates Hal's world: a thieving older brother, an adolescent friend whose enlightened parents practice Violent Femmes duos on their cello and clarinet, a former debate champion who winds up in the back room of a dry cleaners in Newark, a sympathetic if clueless guidance counselor. It's a long list – and I am leaving out the antics of Hal's newly divorced parents and various idiosyncratic debate opponents. The point is: none of these off color characters cross the dangerous line into overt quirkiness. Another recent cult hit, Napoleon Dynamite committed just that offense, with a deluge of ironic whimsy that never rang true. Blitz maintains a delicate balance, a cinematic universe that charms but doesn't ridicule or overwhelm.
Actually, that's not true. Anna Kendrick's hyper intense Ginny overwhelms. Her performance is staggeringly good, and my main complaint about Rocket Science is that the storyline goes to Hal. It will probably take a few more viewings to confirm it, but Rocket Science might belong up there with the best of recent coming of age sagas – in the company of such instant classics as Wes Anderson's Rushmore and Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World.
Anna Kendrick as treacherous Ginny