Release Date:  January 29, 2008
Rating:  R (for some sexual content and language)
Genre:  Drama/Comedy
Run Time:  101 min.
Director:  Jeffrey Blitz
Actors:  Reese Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Vincent Piazza, Nicholas D’Agosto, Aaron Yoo

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following review contains frank discussion of adult subject matter that is not appropriate for young readers.  Parents, please exercise caution.

High-schooler Hal Hefner (newcomer Reese Thompson) has a tough life.  He lives in Plainsboro, NJ, his parents have just split and his neurotic older brother (Vincent Piazza) won’t stop stealing his friends’ stuff.  Hal’s mother, who is disturbingly open about her sexuality, has also just taken up with the father of Hal’s best friend.  And, to make matters really worse, Hal stutters.  A lot.

It’s therefore a huge surprise when Ginny (Anna Kendrick), the super articulate star debater at Hal’s school, asks him to be her new partner.  Ginny’s in a funk, having placed second in the state debate championships.  It turns out that her previous partner, Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto), froze at a crucial moment, which led him to drop out of school.  Now, for some bizarre reason, Ginny thinks Hal can replace Ben.

Not surprisingly, she has other motives, but the hapless Hal can’t see anything through his love-filled haze.  The championship is fast approaching, though.  And Hal’s stuttering isn’t getting any better.  Meanwhile, his brother is still stealing and his mother, well … some things never change.

This film, by writer/director Jeffrey Blitz, pulls back the veil on high school debating just as he did for spelling bees with Spellbound, his successful documentary.  Here, Blitz shows us “spreading,” the popular rapid-fire speech pattern used by successful debaters to convey their points as quickly as possible in a short amount of time.  He also shows us what it’s like to be in high school—without all the clichés and sugarcoating that plague other school films.  As one of the actors says, in the DVD featurette, how quickly we forget the complexities—and the cruelties—of high school society.

It’s really a film for adults, however—especially parents who are too preoccupied with their lives to take notice of what’s happening with their children.  Many scenes are used quite effectively to show what it’s like for teens to bear witnesses to their parents’ search for sexual fulfillment, both in and outside the marriage.  And, while they may be shrewd, will make some uncomfortable, because they involve frank discussions about sex and sexuality.  Usually, however, they are also funny.

For example, in one scene, an adolescent boy shows another his father’s copy of The Kama Sutra.  “Dad says he and Mom have done every one of these at least twice, and some hundreds of times,” he says, flipping through the book.  “But he hasn’t been keeping track, which seems a real waste.  I mean, he could be the Kama Sutra Barry Bonds and no one would even know it.”

In fact, all of the dialogue in the film is both realistic and at times, funny.  A cafeteria matron says, “Sloppy Joes are all we have left. But they’re not that terrible if you’ve never had good ones before.”  “Would you like the join our junior philosopher’s club?” says one kid to another in the library. “And I know what you’re thinking. But don’t worry—we read everything but Hegel.  No Hegel!”

“I swear,” says Hal’s older, kleptomaniac, neurotic brother, “I don’t know what you would do without someone in this family who could steal and then organize.”  “This is one of those rare instances when having an advanced college degree might actually help,” says Ben, the star debater. 

The acting is excellent all the way around, and Thompson and Kendrick are especially good.  Hal’s character is a little weak, however, which means audiences won’t be as apt to root for him as they did for, say, Napoleon Dynamite.  He has a slight character arc, but a bigger one would have made the film stronger.

The film has a definite nihilistic message, which is underscored when one of the characters says, “Life is pointless.  It’s the same thing, over and over.  Somebody may give you a trophy and make you think it’s different, but it’s all the same thing.” 

Later, Hal asks his father, “What are your thoughts on love, Dad?”  “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies.  “Coming here, I missed the off ramp and had to circle back three times.  I don’t even know if I can get you back to Plainsboro.” 

Hal then says, “It really shouldn’t be rocket science, Dad.”  “Well, when you reach a certain age, and a certain place,” his father answers, “you stop trying to figure it all out.  You’re just glad for what you have.” 

It’s a good point, in the context of a good film.  However, it can’t help but echo the desperation of teenagers searching for meaning and truth.

DVD EXTRAS:

  • The Making of Rocket Science
  • Rocket Science Music Video

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Teenager pushed to his emotional limits ferrets out a bottle of whiskey stolen by his brother and chugs it throughout the rest of the evening, eventually becoming extremely drunk (and destructive).
  • Language/Profanity:  A few profanities, one of which is strong.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Teenage son is forced to overhear his recently-separated mother making love to his best friend’s father; adolescent boy tries on a bra; unmarried adults kiss passionately in front of their teenage boys; teenage boy and girl kiss passionately in broom closet; an older brother talks extensively about the merits of oral sex and advises his younger brother how to persuade young women to do so; teenage boy makes a rude hand gesture; two adolescent boys flip through the Kama Sutra (with repeated, though brief shots of its contents) and discuss “positions;” double entendres about self-gratification; extensive shot of male teacher sitting cross-legged in his underwear, mumbling about “open relationships;” principal asks if boy is girl’s little brother, to which he replies, “I’m her ex-lover;” boys asks girl if “groping through the shirt counts as second base.”
  • Violence:  Teenage boys listen as their parents argue vociferously; later, teenage boys overhear mother fighting with live-in boyfriend, before they break up and he leaves as well; adult man screams and throws bikes in frustration; a boy holds up a sign that says, “Die” when another boy attempts to give a speech; frustrated teen throws a cello at a house over and over again, eventually breaking a front window.