Rocket Science, an unconventional coming-of-age yarn that the Johns Hopkins University grad Jeffrey Blitz filmed in Baltimore two summers ago, will premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off today in Park City, Utah.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous," Blitz said of having his movie open at what has become the dominant festival for American independent films. "Part of that nervousness comes from presenting a film that, until now, has been seen only by a handful of other people, and part of the nervousness comes from the fact that it's Sundance. It just feels like it's of a different magnitude than most other festivals."
Set in New Jersey, where he grew up and where his parents still live, Blitz's semi-autobiographical film centers on a shy high school student with a severe stutter who joins the school's speech team.
The filming proved a homecoming for Blitz, who graduated from Hopkins in 1991 and went on to film school at the University of Southern California.
"I got to spend time again in a city I love and know well," he says. "I think I became something of a bore to the crew, though, always pointing out personal landmarks and prior residences."
Rocket Science will have its premiere at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow, with four additional showings scheduled through Jan. 26. The film is set for a theatrical release in August; how widely it is distributed could depend, in part, on how it is received by the cinephiles flocking to the festival, which runs through Jan. 29.
"It's all about the audience response," Blitz writes via e-mail from his home in Los Angeles, "and I don't know if I'll be able to sleep well until I start to get a read on how that's shaping up."
Not that everything rides on Sundance. Witness Blitz's first film, the spelling-bee chronicle Spellbound. It proved one of the most popular documentaries of 2002 and was even nominated for an Oscar (losing to Bowling for Columbine).
"Spellbound, by the way, didn't get into Sundance," Blitz notes, "which always serves as a reminder to me of how subjective all this is."
Rocket Science is one of 122 films playing at Sundance this year, culled from 3,287 submissions, a festival record. The schedule opens tonight with Chicago 10, Brett Morgan's documentary on the trial of the eight protesters charged in connection with the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Other films that have generated considerable pre-festival buzz include:
The Savages, with Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as siblings caring for their ailing father.
The already-controversial Hounddog, with 12-year-old Dakota Fanning as a rape victim.
Rory Kennedy's Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, said by Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan to be "a controlled, candid and remarkably thorough look at all sides" of the scandal over treatment of Iraqi prisoners by their U.S. captors.
Longford, with Jim Broadbent as a British lord whose humanism is sorely tested by an encounter with a woman (Samantha Morton) involved in a series of child murders.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.