Rites of passage come in many forms, and for Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson), the game but hapless hero of ROCKET SCIENCE, that rite is pizza. Specifically, being able to overcome his stutter long enough to form the words to place the order before a lesser option is forced upon him by the bored lunch ladies at his high school. From such small hurdles great stories can be spun, and writer/director Jeffrey Blitz has done just that, turning mere plot into an apotheosis.
Slight of build, and sweet, totally without guile, and painfully earnest, Hal is the type on which life dumps without mercy. And it does. A broken home, a brother (Vincent Piazza) with a mania for agendas and peculiar ideas about property ownership, his mother’s new boyfriend (Steve Park), a small claims judge given to sudden explosions of laughter and inappropriate displays of affection, and the judge’s son, Heston (Aaron Yoo), whose enigmatic smile and unflappable serenity are creepy in the worst sort of way. Hal is unexpectedly plucked from this slough of despond by Ginny (Anna Kendrick), the star of the school’s debate team who convinces Hal into joining the team, stutter notwithstanding. Anger, she assures him, is a deep resource among the deformed that will serve him well. Ginny is assertive, opinionated, take-charge, and sublimely self-confident. In short, exactly the sort of girl that Hal’s type finds scary and yet irresistible. Perhaps its the danger factor of being wrapped so tightly around another human being’s little finger. Thus does Hal begin his journey of discovery, one that will teach painful lessons, but will shock him out of complacency. And perhaps sanity. And thats not necessarily a bad thing. Plus this years debate topic is teaching abstinence in sex ed.
A cello (symphony-sized), the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and a god in hiding in a dry cleaner all loom large in a storyline that never stoops to the tawdriness of the merely conventional or the expected. It is droll, wicked, and scathingly original as Hal finds his motivation in love or revenge, he’s not sure which, as the reason to finally find his voice. Hal’s mad plan flies defiantly in the face of reason, but there is something about his dogged determination that defies dismissing him outright. Thompson is nothing short of brilliant as he unearths unexpected nobility in Hal’s schlubiness while never losing the essential awkward pathos, the acute embarrassment, of that condition. There is zen-like assurance to his performance that mirrors that of the writing, which, is laugh out loud funny as much for the wit and timing as for the humor it discovers in the most unlikely of scenarios. This is life finely observed, from uncertain fish fillets congealing in a cafeteria steam tray, to an overhead shot of Hal riding his bicycle in slow circles in front of Ginny’s house before taking refuge across the street with an 11-year-old proto pervert whose room overlooks Ginny’s bedroom. Blitz uses a static camera to record every exhaustingly painful moment, and then keeps it there, letting the moment run its course until the absurdity of it busts out as a welcome relief.
ROCKET SCIENCE plays by its own ingenious rules. And it’s not afraid to get philosophical as it flays Hals soul, and not just with a kid trying, and failing, to form a philosophy club at Ha’ls school, one with a no Kant rule. The delight, as one character puts it with acute prescience, is looking back and pondering what it all means, and being bowled over by the answer that Blitz has devised.