It seems fitting that a movie about debate competition should produce ambivalent feelings. As a master debater says early on in Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science, a strong opinion is a luxury the great ones don't allow themselves; it only gets in the way. What matters is being able to argue either side with equal conviction, based on the evidence.
So: Rocket Science is yet another Eagle vs. Little Miss Napoleon Dynamite quirk-fest that practically frames its characters in cartoon panels, letting arch oddity trump genuine depth of imagination and empathy. No: Rocket Science evokes the moment a kid starts to sort out the quizzical mixed signals of human complexity. If everything seems weird and goofy, no shit: When you're fifteen, clumsy and shy, everything is weird and goofy — girls, parents, frisky middle-aged chamber-musos whose idea of a musicale is sawing away at the Violent Femmes...
What? Keep reading. The evidence supports both takes on Rocket Science, a mix of sleeve-tugging whimsy and keenly recalled misery set against the high-stakes backdrop of the Plainsboro, New Jersey, public-school system. What makes the first fiction feature from documentarian Blitz persuasive is its late-film detour from the inspirational niche-sports genre to something altogether unexpected — and the winning lead performance of Reece Daniel Thompson as Hal Hefner, a bashful teen coaxed into helping his school earn some payback for last year's debate-team fiasco.
Remember? It was the Jersey state finals, and Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), the Twista of policy debaters, was busy "spreading" (i.e., speed-freak steamrolling) his opponents with a blast of agricultural rhetoric when suddenly, in mid-spiel, he stopped. Could Ben's godlike argumentative powers and Bone Thugs flow have transferred, through some cosmic punchline, into chronic stutterer Hal, for whom specifying "fish" or "pizza" to the lunch lady is a daily ordeal? He's recruited for the team by Ben's still-smarting partner, the preternaturally assured Ginny Ryerson, who senses raw talent. "Deformed people are the best," Ginny tells Hal matter-of-factly on the school bus. "Maybe it's because they have a deep resource of anger."
The law of niche-sports comedy (see Dodgeball codicil, section Hot Rod) says that Hal will tame his stutter, capture Ginny's heart and make the final round at state. But Ginny is made of sterner stuff, and so is the movie. Rocket Science is both a companion piece and a rejoinder to Spellbound, Blitz's bright 2002 doc that followed eight teen contenders to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The risk of public humiliation — the governing terror of adolescence — looms over both films: To be smart and apart from the crowd is scary enough, but to fail is unthinkable.
Yet debate has no obvious according-to-Webster's answer. That's what makes it tantalizing for Hal or any other teenager seeking a voice: the chance to try on points of view in search of one that fits. The funniest scenes involve Hal's hapless attempts to adopt his mentors' advice — bewildering opponents with a Peter Sellers Fu Manchu accent, croaking an opening statement to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Because Thompson is an endearingly gangly, gallant presence — he has the wistful look of a hungry pup just inches shy of a steak — his mortification is ours.
Rocket Science lacks Spellbound's kaleidoscopic richness, its curiosity about the lives of others. While you'd think a former documentary filmmaker couldn't wait to invent all the narrative detail he had to chase in real life, the cutely conceived adults here appear to have been posed just seconds before the camera was switched on: Hal's mom's red-hot lover, a desperate-to-please Korean-American judge (Steve Park) who's unimaginable on the bench; Ginny's mom, who answers a door as if she'd been standing there hours waiting for her cue. Worse, they evaporate when the camera's switched off.
In the movie's second half, though, Blitz pulls the first of several surprises that disorient us almost as much as they do Hal. Once Rocket Science enters the realm of the debate competition, the director's eye for detail never deserts him. As shot by Jo Willems, these scenes evoke the low-stakes/high-drama milieu so astutely that you can almost smell the lemony floor cleaner in those too-white institutional classrooms.
In the end, Rocket Science is less about debate than resolution: The title refers to the mind-boggling complexity of human interaction, of which the hauntingly unresolved ending gives Hal his first inkling. In several scenes, the movie juxtaposes the purity of inarticulate rage with Ginny's glib sophistry — a motif with an unfortunate anti-intellectual bent. But in our current landfill of empty, conviction-free punditry, a single middle finger is worth a thousand words.
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