“Rocket Science” is the dramatic feature debut of “Spellbound” writer-director Jeffrey Blitz, and this time it is not a spelling bee but a debate competition that constitutes his subjects’ route to validation. Fiction’s possibilities suit Blitz. Who would think that such a potentially embarrassing premise — a stuttering kid joining the debate team — could give rise to both an entertaining dysfunction quirkfest and a smart comedy about the workings of teen survival?
New Jersey suburbanite Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) has bickering, divorcing parents (Lisbeth Bartlett, Denis O’Hare), a bullying brother (Vincent Piazza), and a speech condition that renders him tongue-tied when he so much as tries to request pizza in his high-school cafeteria. His dismal confidence level makes Hal easy prey for Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a brazenly assured debate-team star. In need of a partner for the tournament, Ginny recruits Hal, an unlikely candidate for public speaking, by praising his inner fortitude. Smitten with Ginny and eager to prove her right, Hal plunges in — a heartbreak scenario waiting to happen.
Nothing here is profound, really, and sometimes Blitz overdoes the eccentricity. Characters such as Hal’s mother’s too-doltish court-judge boyfriend defy credibility. The narration, which gives Hal’s experiences a comic coating, feels more trendy than sharp.
Yet as, essentially, a genre flick that might have played like a fusion of “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Rushmore,” Terry Zwigoff and Todd Solondz, the film is a crisp comedy about teen anxiety, young love, the high school as a modern-day torture chamber and the craft of debating, with the latter accounting for some terrific material involving the speed-speaking technique. The ending isn’t pat or tidy. There is heart but zero mush.
As in “Spellbound,” Blitz seems less interested in how the kids will fare in the contest than in the need for affirmation that prompts them to vie so severely. His focus on such human elements, combined with an amusingly off-the-wall take on life’s injustices, produces nuggets. Hal’s counselor advises Hal to start “living the way you were before you tried exceeding your expectations,” at one such point. A Trenton-based character (Nicholas D’Agosto) describes that city as if it were the mountain top. The discovery by Hal that everyone around him is enjoying exposure to sex, including a nerdy neighbor kid who reads the Kama Sutra, makes for a fun running bit.
Other pluses include all-around top-rate performances and Eef Barzelay’s aptly agitated music.
Rocket Science ***
Starring Reece Daniel Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Vincent Piazza, Nicholas D’Agosto
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes