You might think that Rocket Science is just another in the long line of quirky, small-budget independent American high-school drama/comedies stretching back to Rushmore and Election. All the hallmarks of this sub-genre are present, from an odd protagonist with even odder friends and relatives, to the off-kilter production design and music, and the plot hinging on an obscure facet of high school life (in this case, inter-school Policy Debates). You might therefore be tempted to give Rocket Science a pass, but if you do you will miss an original, endearing and genuinely touching film.
I mentioned debates earlier, and it is this world of ultra-fast talking high-schoolers that the film revolves around. The debates look less like a formal discussion between teams and more like a competitive speed-talking competition. I was surprised to learn that the method shown is a real-life technique called ‘spreading’ — it’s not made up for the film.
When the star debater of the school quits, his partner Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) zeroes in on Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) as his replacement. Hal is perhaps the least likely candidate for the job, suffering from an acute stutter that makes ordering lunch a near impossible task, let alone public speaking. “Deformed people are the best,” she says. “Maybe it’s because they have a deep resource of anger. It serves them well.” Affronted, intrigued and, ultimately, attracted, Hal beings his tutelage under Ginny. What follows is less about debates and more about Hal himself, as he goes on a long, strange and rewarding journey of self-discovery. This isn’t a sports movie; there’s no big final debate with a nail-biting finish.
Well, there sort of is, but it doesn’t go quite as you might expect. Indeed, ‘not as you’d expect’ is a phrase that can be used to describe many of the events of the movie, and it is these refreshing changes to the tropes of the genre — even the by now familiar tropes of the quirky indie comedy genre — that makes Rocket Science engaging. Yes, there’s the driven kleptomaniac brother, the mother’s new boyfriend who expects people to call him ‘Your Honor’ since he’s a judge, the creepy kid next door and the very misguided guidance counselor (“It’s really a shame that you’re not hyperactive,” he tells Hal, “[...]that, I can work miracles with.”) — it even has a laid-back narrator.
But beyond that the film repeatedly reveals a core of honesty. It entertains us with its weird characters and wry dialogue, but it earns its moments of emotional triumph and despair. It reminds us that real life is much more profound in its strangeness and beauty than cinema can ever be.
A large part of this can be attributed to the astounding performance by Reece Thompson. He makes Hal Hefner more than just the sum of his problems, more than just an everyman for the audience to latch on to. He’s definitely one actor who I will be looking out for in future. I should also mention Anna Kendrick and Vincent Piazza, who manage to make their tricky characters likable and real despite their more unpalatable actions.
Like many films, I went into Rocket Science ‘cold’ i.e. I didn’t watch any trailers and read very little about the actual film. The trailer doesn’t really convey the tone of the film, and plays Hal’s stuttering for laughs much more than is done in the film itself. Be warned if you watch that trailer and are expecting some kind of jokey sitcom. Since watching the film I have looked at a few reviews, and several people pointed out that they just couldn’t get past Hal’s stutter — it was too painful to watch. Now, maybe I’m just not embarrassed or irritated by stuttering, but if you are I would still urge you to see the film, because otherwise you’d be missing out something very special indeed.