The Movie Binge

Rocket Science


As a culture, we are inundated with quirk. The situation has reached such serious levels that the Onion is making jokes out of what was once so unpopular as to easily avoid mainstream attention and criticism. Ira Glass and what This American Life have wrought are a useful frame of reference when delving into an analysis of the film Rocket Science, so laden with a comfortably knowing voice-over and quirkily idiosyncratic caricatures that one's surprised by the lack of Glass's name in the production credits.

In his first film since also quirky and highly entertaining documentary Spellbound, and his first dramatic film altogether, writer-director Jeffrey Blitz returns to the world of cutthroat, eruditely pubescent competition and frames his story around a debate team in a New Jersey high school. Ginny, a no-nonsense, lightspeed-talking champion debater is looking for a new teammate after her previous partner's mid-finals meltdown. For speciously curious reasons, perhaps for nothing more than the sake of quirk, she decides that Hal Hefner, a troubled freshman whose parents just divorced is a prime candidate. Her decision is speciously curious because, get this, he stutters. Pathetic-child written all over his face, a broken home AND a nervous, socially-preventive pathology?! Quirkcore gold! Naturally, Hal falls in love with Ginny (or just becomes obsessed with her; hard to tell with teenage boys), awkwardly gropes at her, earnestly attempts to overcome his stutter, fails, is betrayed by her and eventually tries to beat her in competition by using her old teammate as a ringer. All set to the quirky filmscoring shorthand of the nearly anachronistic Violent Femmes.

It's not that this is a bad movie. I found it entertaining and non-offensive in that public radio kind of way. It's almost a strange doppleganger for movies like Superbad, which deal with essentially the same issues (writ largely, Dealing with the Tribulations of Puberty), although this film trades in crass for class. An extended middle finger is as racy as it gets, which, given the zeitgeist for public filth, is almost endearingly quaint in its tepidness. There is much to recommend in the film. The mostly unknown actors play their humble parts well, the touch of sentimentality is mostly justified, and there is a good deal of fresh comic timing in the pacing and delivery of quirky non-sequitirs. But for all the parts deserving of accolade, the cultural implications of this addition to a rising pantheon of lovable losers and cringe-inducing awkwardness—increasingly a stand-in for emotional relevance—guarantee that Rocket Science, a film trying so hard to come off as unassuming, will sink in the widening sea of its own hip quirkiness.