After directing the documentary Spellbound about kids competing at spelling bees, it was virtually inevitable by Hollywood logic that if Jeffrey Blitz got a movie project, it would involve kids competing in some sort of contest, in the case of Rocket Science the competition involves debate rather than spelling.
Rocket Science received a lackluster reception on its debut and it’s no wonder because Rocket Science is a rehash of the Rushmore type movie about a socially isolated boy trying to find himself in a school setting, wackier variants of which include Napoleon Dynamite. But Rocket Science suffered most obviously in comparison to Thumbsucker, another also-ran indie of the same type that had a more impressive cast, a more original story and much better execution. The analogy was highlighted all the more because the main character in Thumbsucker is a boy who feels socially isolated and sucks his thumb before becoming popular in school debates. In Rocket Science it’s a boy who has a stuttering problem and attempts to try out for debate.
But originality is not really Rocket Science’s problem. The real problem with Rocket Science is that it’s a movie without any real trajectory. By the end of the movie Hal Hefner still stutters and is still socially awkward and has accomplished nothing except to go through an emotional journey that does not seem to have accomplished anything. Both Ginny Ryerson and Ben Wexelbaum appear in his life and seem as if they might show him a way out but both drift out of his life on a trail of betrayals and disappointments. His attempt to enter the big debate tournament goes nowhere, this is realistic but it also makes for a movie with no real point or conclusion, except the one set off by the overbearing narration which at times threatens to smother the movie. The narration claims that some day Hal will find his voice but when considering that he never does in the movie, the viewer can’t help but feel that a 140 minutes or so were wasted that might have been put to better use.
Rocket Science has interesting elements and worthwhile moments but it’s also a collection of indie cliches, which makes it unsurprising that it was a hit at Sundance, but it’s also cluttered with Hollywood cliches. Hal of course has a weird brother, a weird Asian friend (because you know Asian people are weird), his weird Asian friend’s father begins dating his mother and finally he meets a third weird kid who studies the Kama Sutra. It’s a little too much and it’s only the beginning.
Rocket Science plays out like a fusion of Rushmore and Garden State, its constant references to New Jersey though are short on context and unlike Rushmore, Rocket Science lacks any sense of direction. If Max Fischer discovered that he could be himself anywhere, even outside Rushmore, Hal Hefner can’t even quite order a pizza by the end of the movie.
And then there is the movie’s peculiar resentment of women. Ginnie Ryerson, the girl who initially forces Hal out of his shell, turns out to be a compulsive and virtually soulless manipulator and user. Hal’s mother, who divorces his father at the beginning of the movie, proves to be little better when it comes to the men in her life. The final moment of relief in the movie comes when Hal gets into his father’s car.
Overall Rocket Science has some worthwhile moments but it’s bogged down by its own sense of futility. The narration that tries to frame the movie’s scenes rather than lending meaning only reminds us that its meaning is not one that the characters are capable of generating on their own.