Heavily influenced by the anxiously esoteric dialogue and ultra stylized suburban sets of writer cum director cum producers like Wes Anderson (Rushmore,) Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), and Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), the métier of Jeffery Blitz’s Rocket Science at times feels more traveled than it does fresh. This, however, is a fleeting phenomenon as we follow the personal unraveling of the stuttering and socially awkward Hal Halford (Reece Thompson) as he navigates the treacherous roads slowly leading away from adolescence and into the wild blue yonder.
Fed-up with his therapist’s alternative speech impediment treatments, and intrigued by a left-field invitation from the campus debate star Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) Hal quickly finds himself in a situation he is ill equipped to handle. Now motivated by a severe case of non-reciprocal puppy love, Hal must figure out a way to prove himself at the state debate championship, with or without Ginny.
Though Blitz does not have the same type of crossover clout as some of his contemporaries, the kind that allowed Anderson, for example, to drown The Darjeeling Limited milieu with hyper-stylized Louis Vuitton branding, he does process a marked talent for dialogue and quirky scenarios – and besides, Hal’s busted up roller backpack makes for a better inanimate character than a squeaky clean, couture, gazelle skin attaché does.
While the bulky ephemera in Anderson’s latest prevents profound character identification (though some might argue that this is the point, an illustration of fetishized popular consumerism over the development of interpersonal relationships), Blitz gives Rocket Science a personal patina by incorporating his own teenage experiences (though perhaps markedly less traumatic ones) with a speech impediment, even consulting a speech pathologist in conjunction with the film’s production.
Interestingly, the narrative centrality of public speaking in Rocket Science recalls Blitz’ 2002 film Spellbound (not to be confused with the 1945 Alfred Hitchcock/Salvador Dali film of the same name), a documentary about the national spelling bee. Though both Spellbound and Rocket Science are predicated on this idea of tournaments – events with a distinct winner and loser – neither feature places a value judgment on either of the options, but rather inverts the significance of winner into more introspective questions about self esteem and personal discovery.
Of course in keeping with the indie film spirit (lackluster spirit/ smells like teen spirit?), especially after Anderson’s pointed use of Elliot Smith’s Needle in the Hay in The Royal Tennenbaums, Rocket Science also sports a snazzy soundtrack with, among others, The Violent Femmes. Accordingly, and additionally to the short featurette The Making of Rocket Science, the DVD bonus features also comes with the music video for Eef Barzeylay and Clem Snide’s theme-song single I Love the Unknown.
You have probably already guessed that Hal’s parents are both neurotic divorcees (and yes, it takes place on the East Coast) – and while blind-folded make-out sessions and library masturbation scenes are prime indie film fodder, divorced parents are the biggest narrative similarity between Thumbsucker and The Squid and the Whale. I know that genre derivates are supposed to be stale and stagnant and I don’t know that Rocket Science dexterously redevelops genre boundaries (though it did win the Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance), but, to quote The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, “I know what I hate, and I don’t hate this.”