Rocket Science is the kind of movie that people, including me, will describe as charming or endearing. The problem with the film — the first narrative feature from Oscar-nominated director Jeffrey Blitz, who directed Spellbound — is that it's not quite as charming as it thinks it is.
Rocket Science centers on Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), a meek high schooler with a serious stutter and a wrecked home life. After embarrassing himself by going mum during a school assembly, he's recruited for the school's debate team by Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), the state debate runner-up who's still nursing the wounds from being abandoned mid-finals by her former partner, Ben Wekselbaum (Nick D'Agosto). Ginny tells Hal she sees real potential in him, and he falls completely for her ploy, never thinking that Ginny might have more self-interested motivations in mind. In normal high school underdog tales, Hal would lose the stutter, get the girl and win the state debate trophy, but Rocket Science is more complicated than that, so read more
From the opening scenes, the central idea of Rocket Science is that on the night Ben Wekselbaum stopped speaking at the New Jersey state debate championships, his voice started slowly making its way toward Hal. And it's an appealing idea, because Hal is obviously smart and witty and easy to root for; you want him to be able to tell the lunch lady he wants pizza without suffering through two minutes of "um"s and "uh"s first. Basically, you want Hal to get what he wants, which is 1) the ability to speak clearly and 2) Ginny. Thompson and Kendrick deliver nuanced performances far beyond their years here; there's one scene that ends with a cello through a window that's simultaneously hilarious and deeply moving.
Rocket Science isn't content just to tell a story of a stuttering, lovelorn wannabe debater, though, and that's where the movie's weaknesses lie. I assume Blitz, who also wrote the film, was aiming for a universal "finding your voice in a messed-up world" theme, with broken marriages, deviant teenagers and unhelpful school counselors to spare. But the movie is bloated with supporting characters and plot threads that don't ever seem to tie into the whole. The counselor, a staple of every high school film, fades in and out of relevance; Hal's mother's lover is little more than a caricature. I would have been content to lose virtually all of those characters and plot lines in favor of spending more time with Hal and Ginny.
The movie starts coming back together toward the end, however, when Hal seeks out Ben for advice. D'Agosto, so so young and goofy-looking in photos, looks positively like a man next to tiny, insecure Hal; Ben's confidence couples with Hal's insecurity to create some of the funniest and truest scenes in the film. I just wish Rocket Science had stuck to dealing with love, revenge, and high school debate; it's a smaller story, true, but one that the film could tell very well indeed.