Teen Angst in New Jersey

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Rocket Science

There's trauma and longing in high school when a 15-year-old stutterer joins the debate team in Rocket Science

Starring Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick. Rated 14A.

Everybody talks about what isn't rocket science. In fact, this same-named little movie, set in the wilds of suburban New Jersey (and shot in Maryland), doesn't elucidate the matter, except to posit the notion that to your average 15-year-old offspring of battling parents especially a boy with a bullying brother and a debilitating stutter everything is rocket science.

Said boy, the ironically named Hal Hefner (Canadian TV vet Reece Thompson, who is terrific), gets his turn in the laboratory when Plainsboro High's top debater, Ginny Ryerson (excellent Anna Kendrick), suddenly recruits him as a backup in the school's once-great debate team. In flashbacks narrated in the novelistic manner of a folksier J.D. Salinger, we learn that Ginny's previous partner, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto), was New Jersey's forensic god until he reached an existential impasse.

It's initially hard to grasp what the fickle, self-absorbed Ginny, with her volcanic spew of verbiage, would see in our unprincely Hal, who has to say "not the fish" to get pizza from the cafeteria lady. But he warms up to her when she explains that "deformed people" make good competitors due to their "deep resources of anger". Also, he likes the way she hikes her jeans.

This winning film is a first narrative feature for Jeffrey Blitz, whose previous effort was the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound. (He has also directed a few episodes of The Office.) Here, as writer-director, he strains a bit to invent odd details that came up naturally while following his doc's diverse spelling-bee battlers. Some characters, like the long-faced geek (Josh Kay) whose bedroom happens to face Ginny's, and a gruff college student (Superbad star Jonah Hill) Hal meets at the library, add amusing texture. Others, like the Korean-American judge (Steve Park) who goes after Hal's newly divorced mom (Lisbeth Bartlett), feel like rejects from a Wes Anderson movie.

Still, making truly original, independent movies on a small budget is not an exact you-know-what. And, especially in its busy final third, Rocket manages to capture something special about the fragility of adolescence that moment just before pizza loses (some of) its appeal and we begin to miss being young enough not to worry about bigger things.