It begins with Ben Wekselbaum’s breakdown. Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto) was a legend—to the Plainsboro, NJ, high school debate team, anyway. Suave, slick and unstoppable, he could defend any argument; Ben was everybody’s idea of a champion. That is, until last year’s championship, where, with his partner’s eyes literally on the prize, Ben had himself a why-bother moment, and for once in his life couldn’t talk his way out of it. He froze; it was over.
But he’s not the hero of this movie, which should tell you a lot about the movie. The hero, of sorts, is another kid, Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), for whom Ben Wekselbaum’s breakdown becomes an important opportunity. Hal’s nobody’s idea of a champion: the bright but confused kid with the conversation-halting stutter, who joins the debate team in hopes of finding love and his own voice.
And you wondered where a filmmaker could go after making an Oscar-nominated documentary about spelling bees. Rocket Science is Jeffrey Blitz’s answer. Like Spellbound, writer-director Blitz’s new film luxuriates in a love of language and a warm-hearted fascination with youngsters in competition. But, the latter effort being fiction—and hardly history’s first sympathetic movie about nerdy, striving adolescents—Blitz knew he’d need a good hook.
Hence, Hal, a kid who knows the answers—scholastically, at least—but just can’t get them out. He could be unlikable on both fronts, but the movie takes a chance that we’ll feel otherwise. It makes a case. Watching Hal stutter and suffer must be compelling instead of tedious, and Thompson’s acting makes it so; he accomplishes much even without words.
There’s a girl, of course, and that also helps. She’s Ben’s abandoned partner, Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), who aggressively recruits Hal for the debate team in the back of their school bus. “Deformed people are the best,” she tells him flatly. “Maybe because they have a deep reserve of anger. It serves them well.” Does she speak from experience of others or of herself? Even so, and regardless of Hal’s instant smittenness, it’s not obvious that she’s right about him—or even that she really means it.
It’s another strongly written part, strongly performed: alluring and maddening, bold but craven, Ginny is absolutely the right leading lady for a movie that knows so well how young people fumble capriciously around, figuring out what they can get from each other and whether, accordingly, to be enemies or friends or even lovers.
In a rare vulnerable moment, Ginny tells Hal about the day when Ben went mum. “I’ve never felt anything like that. Have you ever felt like you could burn the world down?”
“Every day,” he says.
But before long, without explanation, she’s ditched Hal for another guy and defected to a rival school. He is, suffice to say, at a loss for words.
Hal has no help from the adults in his life, all a bit loony and lonely and randy themselves. His own parents have just split up, with cringe-inducing consequences, and another kid’s parents hack away at musical couples therapy via Violent Femmes for cello and piano; that’s just all wrong. Meanwhile Hal’s inept special-needs counselor (Maury Ginsberg) can only advise defeatism: “Go back to living the way you were before you tried exceeding your limitations.” Finally Hal tracks down the legendary Ben Wekselbaum and appeals for his tutelage. That too has amusingly mixed results.
Like Hal, Blitz is learning to trust his voice. So far he seems equally attuned to wistfulness and whimsy, and very much at home in the comically absurd savageries of adolescence. It’s a good thing he’s not daunted by the company he keeps (see also: Rushmore, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Election, Napoleon Dynamite, Thumbsucker, et al). The universe of Rocket Science isn’t quirkier than thou but instead plausibly familiar. Breakdowns and betrayals aren’t only common here; they’re inevitable.
So it’s a nice, unexpected touch that the debate scenes play like the breakneck banter of vintage Howard Hawks—made all the more enjoyable through the subversive use of an under-confident, stuttering protagonist. Obviously this is a movie that takes language, and its characters, seriously. Enough so that it knows all too well the dubiousness of that procedural first word in any debate: “resolved.”