In Rocket Science, writer/director Jeffrey Blitz clearly shows his inspirations for making this coming-of-age tale. There are two obvious ones that need mentioning. The first is the abysmal and lifeless 2004 dud of a comedy Napoleon Dynamite. The two movies feel very much alike but at least Rocket Science doesn’t beat you death with it’s frustratingly annoying and odd characters and overly stupid humor. The second inspiration is a simple word: quirk. There are three definitions to this word and all of them are symbolized in the movie.

The first definition of quirk is a peculiar behavioral habit. That sums up teenager Hal Hafner (Reece Thompson, in a breakthrough performance) in a nutshell. He is a stutterer. When Hal is alone he can speak well enough but in front of another person, his words can barely get out of his mouth. He can’t even ask the high school lunch lady for a slice of pizza and ends up getting the far less preferable alternative instead each day.

The second definition of quirk is a strange chance occurrence. One day as he is riding home from school on the bus, a beautiful genius and debate whiz named Ginny (Anna Kendrick, 2003′s Camp) strikes up a conversation with him and shows her interest in recruiting him for the debate team (I will analyze the ridiculousness of this in a moment). While Ginny’s intentions are never clear, it’s pretty easy to tell why Hal says yes: to get to know Ginny. This isn’t the entire plot, which is a little more complex than it sounds, but for the sake of not spoiling anything, I won’t go any further.

The third definition of quirk is a surprising twist or turn. One of the things the film has going for it that keeps Rocket Science tolerable is that it is, on more than one occasion, unpredictable. When things seem to be heading down a formulaic road, Blitz spins the story into a more agreeable direction and conclusion. Instead of Hal getting what he wants, he ends up learning a hard life lesson, which is the much more favorable approach to a coming-of-age story.

With the exception of these surprising plot twists, the only other thing Rocket Science has going for it is the performance of Reece Thompson as Hal. Here is an immensely talented young actor that viewers will have the pleasure of discovering. In just his first lead in a motion picture, Thompson has shown the he has the ability to make an otherwise poor film into at least a watchable one. He plays this stuttering, geeky character to perfection and delivers some much needed laughs in some scenes involving him debating in public.

The supporting characters on the other hand, are an almost unbearable nuisance. I’m not picking on the actors at all here but the writing I have to criticize. Each of the supporting players are extremely strange and reminded me of characters in Napoleon Dynamite. Starting with Ginny, we never understand her reason behind asking the innocent Hal to be her debate partner. This is a gigantic plot hole because everything in the movie that follows is the result of this scene.

Hal’s brother Earl (Vincent Piazza, 2006′s Stephanie Daley) is borderline schizophrenic and psychopathic, one moment offering Hal meaningful advice and the next violently yelling at him and threatening to kill him. Hal’s best friend Heston (Aaron Yoo, Disturbia) is dull and has a blank facial expression throughout the entire film. Heston’s father. Pete (Steve Park, 1998′s Desperate Measures), is emotionally all over the map and is irritating as he laughs very loud at things that aren’t funny. The only supporting character close to normal is Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto, 1999′s Election) who is Ginny’s former and gifted debate partner that ends up helping Hal in his time of need. Superbad star Jonah Hill makes a most welcome cameo as a junior philosopher in a couple of funny scenes with Hal in the school library. Blessedly, most of the focus stays on the much more likable Hal.

Rocket Science was one of the films screened at Sundance that blew critics away, although I can’t imagine why. After my viewing I wonder how a lot of them were able to get past that giant plot hole in which the fate of the entire film depends on. There are some laughs to be found but not really on a regular basis. Much of the movie, particularly the beginning, drags. Outside of the talent shown by Reece Thompson, there’s not much reason to see this.

Grade: C

Rocket Science Release Date: August 10, 2007 (limited)
Rated: R for some sexual content and language.
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Cast: Reece Thompson, Nicholas D’Agosto, Aaron Yoo, Vincent Piazza
Director: Jeffrey Blitz
Writer: Jeffrey Blitz
Studio: Picturehouse Entertainment
Official Website: RocketScienceMovie.com

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