Movie Review: Rocket Science
By Tom Houseman
August 30, 2007

Young Paul Simon was such an idealistic lad.

In a perfect world, every summer movie would be a pleasant surprise, a gem that comes out of nowhere to the utter delight of the audience. In reality, we're lucky if we get one per summer. Last summer, Little Miss Sunshine was the highlight of the summer, and the year. This summer, that spot is filled by Rocket Science. Jeffrey Blitz's first narrative feature following the success of the documentary Spellbound is a true delight, a small but flawless film. The dialogue is hysterical, managing to be both matter-of-fact and absurd, the direction is smooth and fast paced, giving a fantastic visual exploration of the story, characters, and ambiance, and the performances are excellent from the leads to the cameos. What's not to love about Rocket Science?

A lot of films lately have starred nerdy high schoolers, ranging from Napoleon Dynamite to Superbad. Rocket Science is similar in that respect, but unlike other filmmakers, Blitz never mocks his subject, Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), who, despite a bad stutter, is convinced to join his school debate team. Hal leads a depressing life: his parents are recently divorced, his brother (Vincent Piazza) is an overbearing bully, and he is so afraid to speak that he has few friends and never raises his hand in class, even when he knows the answer. But Blitz always treats Hal gently, never belittling him or his ambitions. Certainly the audience is meant to pity Hal, both for his terrible situation and his low self-esteem, but you can't help but cheer for him at every turn and hope that, finally, something will go right.

Reece Thompson is superb as Hal. He plays Hal as a sweet but sad boy who can't believe in himself no matter how hard he tries. When Hal meets Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), the narcissistic debate star, a spark of hope flares up inside of him. She is determined to groom him as her teammate, despite his obvious disadvantage. His relationship to her is somewhere between idolatry and school boy crush, despite how obvious it is that she barely considers him human. Hal is a wonderful character, and Thompson plays him perfectly.

Blitz is clearly as talented a writer as he is a director, because Rocket Science is perfectly written. Each character gets a chance to shine, with great dialogue throughout and some really powerful moments. Rocket Science is hysterically funny, driven by the conflict between Hal's need for acceptance and the idea driven into him constantly that he doesn't deserve it. There are so many outstanding performances, including Kendrick's overbearing, arrogant Ginny, Piazza's angry, anti-social Earl, and countless others, including Margo Martindale as the debate coach and Maury Ginsberg as Hal's clueless counselor. Rocket Science is a slice of absolutely bliss, a breath of fresh air in a summer of blockbuster behemoth, and a must-see for anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by life's challenges. If that's you, Hal Hefner just might be your hero.