Body and heat I stain my sheets,
I don’t even know why.
My girlfriend, she’s at the end and she is starting to cry.
— Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”
As Rocket Science opens, Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is surviving high school in Plainsboro, New Jersey. Barely. Watching helplessly as his parents split up and suffering his older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) imaginative abuses, Hal looks like a lot of kids his age. But he’s also special: Hal stutters, with appropriate poignancy and pain.
While the burden of his affliction is established economically — Hal forlorn in the cafeteria line, unable to name his desire and so, bestowed not with pizza but with the “general fish” yet again — Hal remains oddly upbeat. He observes the world around him as if from a distance, filtered through a haze of miscommunication. At the same time, the narrator proposes possibility in the form of a question: “Can a voice travel from one person to another like a yawn or mono?”
The voice initially belongs to champion high school debater Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) who decides, in mid-speed-freaky delivery of yet another triumphant argument, to stop. As he goes silent at his podium at the Jersey State Finals, the audience is aghast, especially his preternaturally ambitious partner/girlfriend Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). While the film — by way of a gently panning camera — hints that Ben’s voice might be alighting on Hal, it also appears to be setting up yet another geek-love fable. That this romance takes place primarily in Hal’s fertile mind doesn’t make it any less familiar.
The plot basics involve Ben’s disappearance and Ginny’s determination to reclaim the championship next year with a new partner. She selects, apparently inexplicably, Hal, asserting, “I’ve ferreted you.” His desperate desire to be her choice precludes his figuring out Ginny’s angle, and so the film takes his wishful thinking, that is, Ginny not only sees in him a talent for debating, but also a romantic object. “Deformed people are the best,” she informs her new protégé, “Maybe because they have a deep reserve of anger that serves them well.” Hal is angry, but he’s also mystified, especially by Ginny, on whom he proceeds to project all manner of adolescent male fantasies.
His imagination is spurred by the designated championship debate topic (teaching abstinence in schools) as well as his mother’s new relationship with Judge Pete (Steve Park), which motivates nightly sexy sounds from her bedroom (“Use your finger… Uhhhh!”) While Earl marvels at his brother’s earnest ingenuousness (“You have no agenda, it’s strictly head in the ground with you”), Hal digs into his abstinence-pro-and-con research energetically. At the same time, he keeps his dreams of Ginny to a kind of delicate propriety, this suggested by his mouth-agape gaze at her as his breath clouds the school bus window. Sweet and brief, the image suggests writer-director and erstwhile stutter Jeffrey Blitz’s sensitivity to boyhood fears, cutting through the condescension that colors most recent nerds-in-love films (say, Napoleon Dynamite).
As in these other films, Hal will come of age, with angst and a modicum of ingenuity. That he’s so particularly put upon in a daily sense (his speech therapist at school [Marty Ginsberg] essentially throws up his hands: “It’s really a shame that you’re not hyperactive. That I can work wonders with”) makes Hal sympathetic by definition. Exacerbating the formula is Hal’s status as a “universal” male teenager: his lesson will involve true love, duplicitous females, and male bonding, not to mention a showdown concerning a school-related event, in this case the debate championships.
It’s in this last that Rocket Science finds something of an original metaphor. The focus on “voice,” as a means to fit in, stand out, communicate and discover, is at once abstract and concrete. Hal’s stuttering makes his dialogue occasionally tense and the film’s rhythms strangely enchanting. As you and he both wait for words, he embodies your anticipation. It’s mostly corny, sometimes effective, and infinitely more interesting than the film’s lapses into teen-boy clichés (see especially, the revelation in drunkenness).
The film’s most original relationship is premised on this idea of the voice, when at last Hal seeks out the seeming source of his possibilities, Ben. Though he functions something like an Obi-Wannish font of what’s obvious (“The best debaters have something to prove,” “Top debaters never really believe in anything”), Ben is also vaguely seductive. He understands Hal’s sense of betrayal and has opted out of the Ginny Fantasy, taking a job at a dry cleaning store in Trenton, as far from the suburbs as he can manage. And if revenge is the best antidote these wronged boys can come up with, it’s also not an answer. At least Rocket Science figures out that much.