What is so difficult about rocket science? It’s merely the combination of complex scientific systems such as aerodynamics, propulsion, control engineering, materials science and electronics. Alright, so the subjects might be a tad over most of our heads, but those problems pale in comparison to the multitude of life questions and quandaries we all deal with on a daily basis, and that’s exactly the point the aptly named Rocket Science makes.
Born from the brain behind the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which followed middle schoolers working toward spelling bee greatness, Rocket Science is film that is obviously close to writer and director Jeffrey Blitz’s heart. Blitz’ fondness for his home-grown story is good and bad as we follow Hal Hefner, a high school student whose disabling stutter isn’t enough to stop him from joining the debate team in hopes of winning the heart of the fast-talking girl who recruited him. Although the genre has changed to indie comedy, the setting and a few themes aren’t that far off from Blitz’s previous documentary work. Spellbound subtly wove themes of isolation and a loss of childhood through its story, and Rocket Science expands on those ideas through Hefner’s first lost love.
But Rocket Science is far from subtle. From Hal’s ironic last name (he’s not the greatest ladies man) to his stutter-plagued debate arguing the importance of abstinence taught in public schools, the themes of losing one’s childhood innocence through the first romantic relationship are painfully obvious. Perhaps no more so than the scene where Hal looks at his love’s bedroom window, pounding down a bottle of brandy like there’s no tomorrow, while his two friends play cowboy and Indians behind him. Despite all the transparent symbolism, there is a lining of honesty and humor. We’ve all been in Hal’s position at one time or another. The difference is that while his childhood is literally behind him, he gets up and throws a cello through the window of his beloved’s home. How many heart-broken lovers have ever wanted to do that? You can all put your hands down.
The straight-played ridiculousness of the film rings true because of how we relate to it. We’ve all wanted to throw that cello, and we cheer for Hal when he does. Much of the honesty and humor credit is due to Reece Thompson’s performance and Blitz’s direction. Hal’s sympathetic trump card is his stutter, which could have been a cinematic disaster. Blitz, however, handles it with the delicacy of first-hand knowledge, knowing when to make it painful, when to make it funny and when to make it meaningful – like when Hal bumbles through the line, “I want to do this for love… or revenge. Love or revenge.”
Unfortunately, that same finesse doesn’t spill into the rest of Blitz’s aesthetics. While the film isn’t a pretentious indie comedy, or “dramity,” it does have a fixation on quirky music, like an a capella version of The Blob’s pulpy theme song and a piano and cello duet of the Violet Femme’s “Raisin in the Sun,” causing Rocket Science to come off stylistically like a poor man’s Wes Anderson film. Even the voice over seems like practice takes from The Royal Tenenbaums. While Anderson wears his French and Italian influences on his sleeve while injecting his own stile, Blitz’s filmmaking feels like a documentary filmmaker lost on a dramatic palette. Yet, Blitz’s inability to define his directorial voice is what keeps Rocket Science from standing out of the indie crowed, but its honesty and humor hold promises of great films from Blitz.