If a movie lingers with me past the parking lot and after I arrive home, I usually consider the film worth the price of admission. If it stays with me a couple of days, then it's a film that I generally regard as worthwhile. But when the film continues to generate flashbacks and thoughts a week after my initial screening, I'm compelled to recommend it. And that is the case with Rocket Science.
Screenwriter/director Jeffrey Blitz must have mined his richly developed characters from his 2002 Spellbound that documented the lives of eight super-achieving teens in quest of the 1999 National Spelling Bee championship. Crafted along the lines of Harold and Maude and Welcome to the Dollhouse, his quirky drama is populated with angst ridden high school students who suffer through obsessions and strive to make their way in this crazy world.
The opening off screen narration identifies protagonist Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) as a very bright and insightful student, but he stutters when called upon in class or when attempting to talk to his peers or to a girl that he's developed a crush on. We realize early on that he's destined for the most unlikely extra-curricular activity possible for any student pulled out of class for speech therapy. Hal explains how he is connected to brilliant high school debater Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), who suddenly freezes midway through championship round of the New Jersey state championship and walks away from high school life forever.
Ben's partner Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) has obsessions of her own—one of which is to gain the state championship debating crown. So it's a total bolt from the blue when she abruptly recruits Hal to join the team and be her partner. She claims that she sees his potential, but there's far more to the story than meets the eye—a formula teen love comedy this is not. Dark comedy perhaps, and very painful (that may well bring long suppressed memories from your own high school years). Yet, Blitz again forgoes a traditional treatment that could have painted Ginny as villainess to show that she has her own issues. And therein lies a great deal of the strength of the film—even supporting characters are sketched with enough color to make them human.
Even the relatively small part of Heston (Aaron Yoo) is respectfully drawn. Although painted as a gay teen obsessed with male pin-up pictures, Heston fulfills his supporting role beyond typical caricatures, as he's another teen who appears to be fighting his own battles to discover his place in Life.
We all have hang-ups, which are invariably brought to the surface during high school. So Hal's handicap provokes great sympathy. He longs for a love life, but he can hardly get through a single sentence when around Ginny, so we feel his overwhelming frustrations when he tries to connect with her. "Love" ain't supposed to be "rocket science," but don't try explaining that to Hal. His own parents aren't the greatest examples either, as their married life busts apart right in front of us, and Hal's mom proves to be clueless when she tries to take up with a Korean judge (Steve Park) in the neighborhood. She can't even distinguish between Kim chi and tuna casserole!
Ironically, as Hal struggles to establish himself, he finds a couple of supportive mentors along the way who perform their duties outside the main thread of the narrative. I'll not reveal their identities here, other than say that both have come to a realization about the existential nature of reality—something that is profoundly missing for most of us during those awkward high school years. Kudos to Blitz for exploring that painful universe once again with a structure that holds its broad landscape that he populates with very believably human characters. (At least, I've been thinking about them for over a week now)