[EDITOR'S NOTE: This review of "Rocket Science" was first published during the Sundance Film Festival in January.]
Quirky coming-of-age comic-dramas are not a rare species, especially at Sundance. But "Rocket Science," Jeffrey Blitz's narrative debut, bristles with sharply written dialogue, a fresh-faced cast and an offbeat tone somewhere between Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and '80s John Cusack movies.
Blitz made a name for himself a few years back with "Spellbound," his conventional documentary about cute, nerdy kids fighting it out in the national spelling bee championships. For his first narrative effort, he proves himself to be just as adept at creating fictional characters with the same social hang-ups and over-achieving ambitions.
Employing a literary non-character narrator (that may ring all-too-familiar in the wake of "Little Children"), "Rocket Science" unfolds in the suburbs of New Jersey. Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson, a younger-looking Lou Taylor Pucci) is a smart, awkward kid plagued by stuttering. His parents have just separated, his brother is an OCD kleptomaniac (a terrifically menacing Vincent Piazza) and his after-school counselor can't help him -"it's a shame you're not hyperactive," he says in one of the film's many pungent one-liners.
When debate team star Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick, far more credible than Reece Witherspoon's Tracy Flick in "Election") loses her partner Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), she sets out to find a replacement, inexplicably singling out sad-sack Hal one day on the bus. But she has her reasons: As she says, "deformed people have a hidden source of anger." Tantalized by the prospects of his newfound potential and the attention of pretty Ginny, Hal joins her in the hopes of finally untangling his tongue for the big debate.
Blitz, thankfully, largely eschews the narrative cliches of the Big Competition that were the backbone of "Spellbound." In "Rocket Science," he is more interested in the sexual frustrations and lovelorn tantrums of his high-school-age protagonist. In one running comedic gag, the young Hal can't escape his raging hormones because everywhere he turns he's reminded of sex: Whether in the sounds of lovemaking coming from his mother and her new Korean boyfriend, a neighbor's parents who are experts in the Kama Sutra, or the year's debate-team theme: Teaching abstinence in schools, pro and against.
"Rocket Science" evokes teenage angst best with the help of the Violent Femmes, from the alterna-band's masturbation ballad "Blister in the Sun" ("big hands, I know you're the one") to the use of "Kiss Off" to illustrate Hal's emotional meltdown ("three three three for my heartache..."). The same scene affords the film's distribution team from Picturehouse a worthy tagline alternative to carpe diem: "Throw me the cello."
If it's not "Vote Pedro," that's because "Rocket Science" is more sophisticated than "Napoleon Dynamite." But it is troubling how many other movies from Sundance past that one can draw parallels to "Rocket Science" - the adolescent confusion of "The Squid and the Whale" or the skewered New Jersey setting of Zach Braff's "Garden State" or the stunted suburban teen of "Thumbsucker." Less poignant than the former and cleverer than the latter two, "Rocket Science" isn't the most original or complex American film in years. But it's humor and sincerity more than makes up for its familiar setting.