Like the stutterer who acts as its protagonist, “Rocket Science” is usually quietly funny — except when it tries too hard and winds up stumbling. “Just relax,” you want to say. “You’re doing fine!”
It was written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, who has explored the comedy of awkwardness before with his 2002 documentary “Spellbound” and by directing episodes of “The Office.” Here he gets a little autobiographical, focusing on a smart high school student, Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), whose stutter has made him shy and quiet. His parents have split up, his mother is dating the Korean man next door, and his older brother (Vincent Piazza) is a kleptomaniac who still refers to their mother as “mommy.”
For reasons he cannot fathom, Hal is recruited to join the debate team by super-confident Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), the squad’s wunderkind. She needs a new partner after her last one, the legendarily talented Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), went up in flames at the state finals and dropped out of school altogether. Why Hal? She believes she can mold him, shape him, turn him into a master debater. Or so she claims.
The movie is about Hal’s attempts to find his place in the world, to feel comfortable in his own skin, and to learn what’s really important to him. In other words, it has the exact same themes as a lot of coming-of-age stories. The good news, I suppose, is that most people haven’t seen “Thumbsucker” or any of the other Sundance-spawned indie films that “Rocket Science” closely resembles, so the resemblance won’t be a concern.
What is a problem, occasionally, is when “Rocket Science” goes overboard on the quirk factor. Hal develops a crush on Ginny and spies on her from the house across the street, where he’s friends (sort of) with the kid who lives there, whose parents play Violent Femmes songs on the piano and cello as a means of marital therapy. Hal’s best friend by default, the son (Aaron Yoo) of the Korean man his mother is dating, has a few “What the…?” moments, too, as when he randomly shows Hal a male beefcake calendar he found in the trash. And what’s the deal with Hal’s brother? Almost everything he does is off-center in some way, and for no visible reason.
The movie never becomes outrageous or in-your-face, but those minor things add up after a while. And Blitz doesn’t need them! His script is impeccably written, with a literate and insightful unseen narrator (voice of Dan Cashman) providing commentary that makes the film feel like a novel. His characters are charming without stuffing them full of quirks. The sweet performances by Reece Thompson as fumbling, eager Hal and Anna Kendrick as the force-of-nature Ginny are honest and funny — and largely believable.
Blitz peppers the film with memorable dialogue, like the Violent Femmes kid talking about his parents’ enthusiasm for variety in their sex life: “(My dad) could be the kama sutra Barry Bonds.” Or the attempt by a member of the philosophy club to recruit Hal: “I know what you’re thinking. We read everything — but no Hegel, if that’s your concern.” Ginny frequently speaks in rapid-fire monologues, seemingly sure of every word she utters even though you’d think there’s no way her brain could be working that far ahead.
If you’ve feasted too much on the ironic-but-heartfelt comedies by hipster directors (“Thumbsucker,” “The Puffy Chair,” anything by Wes Anderson or Alexander Payne), then “Rocket Science” may seem like old news. On its own, though, it offers plenty of smart laughs and genuine character development.
B (1 hr., 38 min.; )