A Stuttering Student Finds His Voice On His High-School Debate Team
Behold Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), the smug god of the debate team. He's like a young Steve Jobs, all natty bow tie and Sephardic good looks, and he's just as overbrimming with near-noxious force of personality as he eviscerates the opposing team's feeble arguments with the rat-a-tat speed of an auctioneer. He is everything--brash, confident, robust, loquacious--that the scrawny and stammering Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) is not, but the two teenagers share an uncanny facial resemblance that makes them look like the "before" and "after" testimonial for some miracle growth potion. They're strangers to each other, but it's too clear how irrevocably their lives are somehow intertwined when the apogee of Ben's life (his triumphant summation at the debate) and the nadir of Hal's (his parents' noisy separation) occur simultaneously. But just as Ben rounds the home stretch of his concluding argument, his voice catches in his throat. A sudden wave of stage fright paralyses him, triggering the chain of events that will intertwine his life's direction with that of his mystery counterpart.
If this plot sounds familiar--stage actress loses the ability to speak during a performance and slowly merges identities with the somewhat look-alike nurse assigned to care for her--you must be boning up on your Bergman. But Rocket Science isn't an after-school special version of Persona. It's much funnier for starters, and besides, despite the introductory scenes, it's all Hal's story, about his quaking, stuttering, mortified lurch into maturity--or something close enough to it.
Whatever tongue-tied anguish Ben experienced onstage, it's nothing compared to Hal's everyday life: his thoughts and wishes die on contact with his rigor-mortised mouth. It's not really a stutter; it's more of a constitutional inability to ask for what he wants. Finding love or pursuing his passion in life is totally out of the question when he can't even convince his convulsive tongue to tell the lunch ladies he wants "pizza" instead of whatever nauseating alternative is available. His adolescent unease is compounded when his newly single mother starts a slobbering romance with his friend's dad, topping off every awkward "family" dinner with the crashing sounds of their overnight lovemaking. The audience gets to laugh off the tension these events create, but for Hal, there's no escape.
It's only when Ginny (Anna Kendrick), Ben's disgraced debate partner, takes a shine to Hal on the bus one day and convinces him to go out for the debate team that Hal permits himself a little optimism. It's not anything she says in particular that sways him, just the thunderbolt impression of her crisp, driven efficiency, her puppy-fat beauty, and the way she can summon up torrents of quick and incisive words out of the ether, slicing and dicing them into neat syllabic parcels with her flashing white teeth like a machete through brush. Maybe, he thinks with the drunken logic of the love-struck, if he submits to her tutelage and joins the debate team, he can learn to do this, too.
It's nearly impossible to craft an entire movie around a main character who can barely voice a single complete line of dialogue, but writer/director Jeffrey Blitz and lead actor Thompson succeed completely in making Hal as compelling a character as the motormouths that surround him. Blitz--a Johns Hopkins grad whose last project, fittingly, was the school competition documentary Spellbound--shuffles through other smart teen movies for the perfect tone for this material: witty like Rushmore without the artiness, dry like Napoleon Dynamite without the smirking irony, and suffused with the tender heart of the best of John Hughes. The strength of his characters and scenarios fuel the movie's emotions, not the other way around: When a despondent and rejected Hal has a meltdown set to the strains of Violent Femmes' "Kiss Off," that overused tune suddenly feels flush with the worst kind of anguish again. And Thompson's Swiss-engineered comic timing--he's similar to Superbad's Michael Cera in his ability to milk excruciating discomfort for laughs--acknowledges the distance Hal's speech impediment places between him and his peers without flinching from its comic absurdity.
Anyone who survived adolescence without blocking the trauma completely from memory knows that it's basically one sustained humiliation punctuated with infrequent gasps of air. Rocket Science stays close to that truth, but the brilliant thing about it is that, while Hal's journey to maturation is torturous, lacerating, and endlessly unfruitful, hunkering down in the trenches of self-discovery with him is a joy.