Rocket Science is a film that starts off predictably enough, but before you know it veers into “why?” territory before concluding before you even know what’s happened. It’s a “quirky” independent production from newbie director Jeffrey Blitz, and is — at first, at least — about a stuttering student named Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson) who is hand-picked by his high school’s top debater, Ginny (Anna Kendrick), to be her partner for all upcoming debates. Obviously, he’ll have to overcome his affliction in order for that to happen.
The story takes a left turn at the midway point and never looks back. I appreciated that. So often these types of productions take a risk like this one and then backtrack on it by the end. Not Rocket Science. This film reckons that once it’s made a decision, it has to stick by it for better or for worse. The result if not necessarily an easy or even terribly interesting watch, but one that I almost have to recommend just because it’s trying something different.
I wish I could explain to you what that turn is, but that would be spoiling. Suffice to say that it involves betrayal from one party, and that the reason behind it is only kind of explained by the end. We’re still wondering why this character performed this action, as the justification behind it was superficial at best. That kind of gives the illusion that this dramedy is more thoughtful than it initially appears to be. That it can have secrets that we won’t figure out makes you think it might somehow reveal them if you look hard enough.
I don’t think that’s the case, but perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, or it might just be a case of them not existing — motivation hidden because the characters don’t need a good reason to act. They’re teenagers, after all, and once we get past their basic desires, it makes a little bit of sense to see them be selfish or do whatever it takes to achieve them, because the empathetic part of the brain hasn’t fully developed yet. Or that might just be giving the film too much credit. I’m not sure.
Make no mistake in thinking that this won’t still be a coming-of-age story, but the way it arrives at that conclusion is much more subdued than most films in the genre. You don’t see the character arc follow a traditional or predictable path; you just know that, in the end, everyone has learned something, even if you’re not entirely sure what that is. I’ll tell you what doesn’t happen: Hal doesn’t magically have his stutter under control by the film’s conclusion. And I was perfectly okay with that.
Even saying “I was perfectly okay with that” should tell you something about the film. It went in directions I liked and fit the characters, even if I didn’t know as much as I would have liked to about them. Sure, maybe I wanted to see Hal discover that he can totally overcome any obstacle, but that he doesn’t do that actually makes the movie better. It’s more believable, which fits in with what Blitz is aiming to do, which is make a depiction of an absurd, yet still real, life.
Some of it goes over the top. There are too many weird and quirky supporting characters just for the sake of having the film be that “odd” movie. A couple has therapy sessions by playing musical instruments together; a speech therapist is so incompetent that you can never understand how he got a job in the first place; a kid has such a fixation with undergarments that he has no problem asking if another character would want to see them upon first entering his house, and so on. It somewhat negates the truth behind the movie.
Hal feels like a very real person, which is another rarity in movies like this one. We understand that he’s lovestruck and that his desire to win the debating championship has given him a false sense of confidence. We get that he’s trying to work out of the shell to which he banished himself due to his stutter and general shy personality. He’s awkward and has a ton of flaws, and it makes him feel genuine. Why does everyone else feel fake? Because they’re all trying to be too weird to take seriously.
It might be that he’s also one of the better acted characters in the film, as Reece Daniel Thompson does a very believable stutter — in combination with the character’s other traits. Thompson might give the stutter a bit too much time in some instances, leading to the feeling of “come on, already,” but then you realize that this is exactly how it feels for people who suffer from a stutter. Anna Kendrick is also very believable as the intelligent, fast-talking debate partner. Everyone else is too silly to take seriously.
Rocket Science is a movie that would have worked better had it not tried to be so “indie.” It wants to find its niche by being “different” and quirky, and in doing so it takes away some of the truth and authenticity to its story. It could have been an affecting drama about a kid and his stutter, but this effort is undermined by the weirdness of the majority of the supporting characters. The two leads are good, the main character feels genuine, some of the lines are really funny, and I appreciated how it stuck with its decisions instead of trying to backtrack on them to be pleasing. Rocket Science is a pretty good, independent production, and I think it’s worth a watch.