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Worth A Look: 40%
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Pretty Bad: 6.67%
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2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Rocket Science
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by Mel Valentin

"It's high school debate time and you won't want to miss it."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For his follow up to "Spellbound," the Academy-Award-nominated documentary about the national spelling bee held every year in Washington, D.C., writer/director Jeffrey Blitz decided to give feature-length filmmaking a try. The result, "Rocket Science" is a coming-of-age comedy/drama centered on the least likely of subjects for a feature-length film, competitive high school debating. Wryly humorous, often painfully insightful, and ultimately life-affirming without resorting to the usual cliches found in generic coming-of-age stories, "Rocket Science" is exactly the kind of film indie fans should be seeking out opening weekend, wherever it happens to be playing, the arthouse or the local multiplex.

Plainsboro, New Jersey. Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) has so much going against him, he might as well quit while he's behind. Practically an outcast in high school due to his stutter, mercilessly harassed by his older brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza), and witness to his parents,' Juliet (Lisbeth Bartlett) and Doyle (Denis O’Hare), failure to keep their marriage going, Hal has little to look forward to, except the distant day when he can escape his family and high school and move on with his life. With the exception of Heston (Aaron Yoo), Hal has no other friends, but his friendship with Heston takes a bizarre, uncomfortable turn when his mother begins dating Heston's father, Pete (Steve Park), a small claims judge.

Everything looks to change, though, when Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), an upperclassman, recruits Hal for the debate club as her partner. Ginny sees past Hal's stutter to the skillful debater beneath. Quickly smitten with the super-smart, verbally gifted, upper-middle class Ginny, Hal plunges in the arcane rules of high school debate, researching every possible angle for the upcoming state finals, abstinence and sex education. The debate coach, Coach Lumbly (Margo Martindale), goes along with Ginny’s recommendation, but has doubts about Hal’s abilities as a debater. Hal's stutter doesn't magically disappear and he faces an unexpected challenge when another high school actively recruits Ginny for their debate team. For help, Hal turns to a former member of the debate team, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), who left high school after freezing up during the debate championships the previous year.

At least superficially, Rocket Science looks like any other coming-of-age tale about a high school outcast who, thanks to a combination of skill, luck, and effort, overturns the high school status quo, if only temporarily, triumphing over adversity, and winning the girl in the end. Rocket Science goes only so far before making a few unexpected, mostly satisfying turns. Ultimately, Hal doesn’t exactly get what he wants, but he does get what he needs, humbling lessons about life and love. Hal’s endpoint is as far from Ferris Bueller’s (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Max Fisher’s (Rushmore) or Tracy Flick (Election) as you could get, which depending on your perspective, makes Rocket Science satisfying emotionally and dramatically or comes up short if you expected something with an escapist/wish fulfillment ending like those found in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Rushmore.

Blitz also proves a solid director when it comes to performances. Blitz does wonders with Reece Daniel Thompson’s performance (Thompson’s obvious talent helps too), and manages to do just as well with the supporting performances. In particular, Anna Kendrick gives a standout performance as the hyper-articulate, ambitious Ginny (a close analogue to Tracy Flick). In a small, but pivotal role, Nicholas D’Agosto turns in a charismatic performance as failed debater Ben Wekselbaum. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them go on to long and varied careers on film and in television. As for Blitz, expectations will be high for his next effort, whatever the format (i.e., documentary or feature-length narrative).

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originally posted: 05/17/07 10:25:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2007 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2007 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/25/08 Oz So freakin' good. Like, f'real. 5 stars
9/01/07 Drew A MUST SEE FILM 5 stars
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  10-Aug-2007 (R)
  DVD: 29-Jan-2008



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