'Rocket' lifts off

The Baltimore Sun

With joy and yearning and heartbreaking self-doubt, the unlikely hero of Rocket Science, young Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), races around his New Jersey suburb on his bike like a winged messenger of modern love. He's fallen hard for a debate-team queen named Ginny (Anna Kendrick) who has convinced him that he can overcome a woeful stutter and become her power-partner on the highly competitive school squad. So he's willing to make an exhibition of himself in a town where everyone else is more sneakily freaky in his or her own way.

Fresh, funny and unfailingly observant, Rocket Science is a mood-swinging movie about adolescence that lifts audiences' spirits even when its hero is down in the dumps. In my own childhood and teen years, anyone who threw a fit or made a fool out of himself or herself was viewed as aberrant by peers or said by elders to be "acting out." Rocket Science captures the elation that comes with "acting out," or even going into orbit and crash-landing, when it expresses true emotional ignition. Will Hal find his voice, his land legs, his grasp and his reach? The important thing is you leave this picture knowing he'll die trying.

The writer-director, Jeffrey Blitz, previously directed the documentary Spellbound, a movie about spelling bees that became an unsentimental celebration of the American Dream. Rocket Science depicts American suburbia as a terrific place to come from - a sprawling behavioral lab - even if you only land in Trenton (Baltimore stands in for these not-so-verdant pockets of the Garden State). That's where Ginny's former partner, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), ends up pressing laundry for a living, after he freezes up during a state championship over the futility of it all - as he later explains, he realized that the fights he fights today are the same ones he'll be fighting every day of his life.

Ben stands tall and proud and suave; Hal scrambles all over the place. But in one way Hal is braver and smarter: He knows that what counts in life is setting the terms of your fights. As this runty kid takes in the nutty existences that rebound and crack all around him, Blitz brews mixtures of perception and slapstick exaggeration that are equally hysterical and magical. Hal sees couples making out or Plainsboro, N.J. (accent on the Plain) turns out to contain corners as exhilarating and unexpected as any Jean Cocteau hotel room or corridor.

thinking about it everywhere, and not just teens hipper or luckier than himself. His own newly separated mother has taken a live-in lover known to all as Judge Pete (Stephen Park), whose son Heston (Aaron Yoo) goes to the same school as Hal and his intense, morose brother Earl (Vincent Piazza); the couple who live across the street from Ginny practice music therapy with a jolly duet for cello and piano while working their way repeatedly through every position in the Kama Sutra. Hal studies Ginny's comings and goings from their son Lewis' room. Hal never loses his hunger to know more about her.

Rocket Science is all of a piece. Emotionally, it's about desire as the fuel that elevates your game; intellectually, it's about what you learn when you don't even think you're trying to learn anything. In the course of his struggle to master the skills required for debating, Hal demonstrates that committing acts of genuine communication may demand bruising egos and hurting feelings, especially your own.

The movie has a darting, sometimes subliminally funny style that captures the everyday surreal. The last time Hal trains his eye on Ginny's house from Lewis' room, Lewis and Heston start playing Cowboys and Indians - and suddenly you notice that Lewis' room has Wild West wallpaper. Blitz has cited Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Being There) as an influence, but I see him as heir to the young Howard Zieff (Slither, Hearts of the West), a director who conveyed a belief in universal eccentricity with visual and verbal jokes that were organic, fizzy and surprising.

Blitz keeps himself open to gags that land onscreen from the peanut gallery, such as some school auditorium wiseacre calling out "Lincoln is a chick" during a re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debate (and indeed he/she is: Dionne Audain, according to the credits). And he doesn't restrain himself from presenting Hal as a walking, spluttering sight-and-sound gag, with a stubborn, reed-like strength. In this movie, anything can be destructive - a volley of words, a flying cello - and survival tips can come from anywhere, even an ineffectual school therapist who confesses he could do better things for Hal if the boy had some fashionable syndrome.

Blitz knows how to get pitch-perfect performances: Thompson even stutters in character. As his brother, a thief who is super-protective of his stolen stuff, Piazza turns brooding over ephemera into an uproarious self-aggrandizing art. D'Agosto as recovering-debater Ben has a sweet dapperness of soul, and Kendrick captures the maddening, teasing core of a girl who has all the desirable qualities except spontaneity and honesty. But like a born movie director, Blitz doesn't stop there: he uses his actors to charge their space on-screen so that the atmosphere itself seems combustible.

For surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Hal begins to look mock-heroic, then-heroic; the inspired, silly-seductive alt-rock score reaches its high-point in the climax, with a song called "I Love the Unknown." Rocket Science plunges you into some forgotten, painfully humorous pockets of adolescence and enables you, like Hal, to emerge sadder but wiser - and maybe funnier but wiser, too.


>>>Rocket Science (Picturehouse) Starring Reece Daniel Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Jeffrey Blitz. Rated R. Time 98 minutes.


Read more coverage of the filming of Rocket Science at baltimoresun.com/madeinmd

Two sentences were scrambled in a review of Rocket Science that ran in yesterday's Movies Today section. They should have read: "Plainsboro, N.J. (accent on the Plain) turns out to contain corners as exhilarating and unexpected as any Jean Cocteau hotel room or corridor. Hal sees couples making out or thinking about it everywhere, and not just teens hipper or luckier than himself."The Sun regrets the error.
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