There's just no going to the multiplex these days without stumbling on another young geek attempting to make good. And then there are all the movies about them. The latest is Rocket Science, a Sundance favorite that comes tantalizingly close to the genius of Hal Ashby's unforced, sympathetic humanism.
Reece Daniel Thompson plays Hal Hefner, a high schooler whose low self-esteem and stuttering—inextricable from each other—prevent him from expressing himself to teachers, family, and girls. When debate star Ginny (Anna Kendrick) unaccountably takes him on as a prospective debate partner, Hal develops hope of solving all his problems.
Anyone who's ever sat through a latter-day debate at the high-school level will nod in recognition at the time signals, the plastic tubs and rolling suitcases of evidence, and "spreading": a verbal blitz of high-speed arguments. Director Jeffrey Blitz takes the exact opposite tack in letting his story unfold.
Blitz is making his narrative debut, after the delightful documentary Spellbound, and there's much to like in his generally low-key approach and resistance to crowd-pleasing warm fuzzies. One way he makes his protagonist yet more endearing is the incisive commentary of a Little Children-esque narrator (Dan Cashman). Most of the themes brought out by the narrator are spoken, but one is implicit: the idea of inner life versus outer life as Hal searches for his own voice.
It's too bad, then, that Blitz undermines his efforts with some obvious choices (can we lay off The Violent Femmes already?) and by driving a plot hole through a major character and another through the third act, by way of enabling an unlikely climax.
Still, Thompson rings true in capturing Hal's worthwhile spirit-in-bondage, as well as his less attractive quality of gracelessness under pressure and in defeat. And Blitz meets Hal where he lives, finding poignancy in life's disappointments and vagaries. As Hal grows up just a little, he learns there's a thrill in even small victory, but also a promise of agonizing defeats with the approaching touchstones of age.