- Polka-dot bow ties are only one of Hal's (Reece Thompson) many quirks.
It seems fitting that a movie about debate competition produces ambivalent feelings. As one top debater says in Rocket Science, a strong opinion is a luxury the great ones don't allow themselves. What matters is being able to argue either side with equal conviction, based on the evidence available.
So on one hand, Rocket Science is yet another "Eagle vs. Little Miss Napoleon Dynamite" quirk-fest; it practically frames its characters in cartoon panels, letting oddity trump depth. On the other hand, the movie manages to capture the moment a kid starts to sort out the quizzical mixed signals of life -- that moment, around age 15, when everything seems weird and goofy because everything is weird and goofy.
The evidence supports both takes on Rocket Science, a mix of sleeve-tugging whimsy and keenly recalled misery set within the Plainsboro, New Jersey public-school system. What makes the movie persuasive is its detour from the inspirational niche-sports genre to something altogether unexpected -- along with the winning lead performance of Reece Daniel Thompson as Hal Hefner, a bashful teen coaxed into helping his school earn some payback for last year's debate-team fiasco.
It was the Jersey state finals. Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto) was steamrolling his opponents with a fire-hose blast of agricultural rhetoric when suddenly, in mid-spiel, he stopped. The question posed by Rocket Science: Can Ben's argumentative powers be transferred to chronic stutterer Hal, for whom specifying "fish" or "pizza" to the lunch-line lady is a daily ordeal? Hal is recruited for the team by Ben's still-smarting partner, the preternaturally assured Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), who senses raw talent.
The law of niche-sports comedy (See Dodgeball, Hot Rod, etc.) says that Hal will tame his stutter, capture Ginny's heart, and make the final round at state. But Ginny is made of sterner stuff, and so is the movie. Rocket Science is both a companion piece and a rejoinder to Spellbound, director Jeff Blitz's bright 2002 doc that followed eight teen contenders to the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The risk of public humiliation -- the governing terror of adolescence -- looms over both films: To be smart and apart from the crowd is scary enough, but to fail is unthinkable.
Yet debate has no obvious answers. That's what makes it tantalizing for Hal or any teenager seeking a voice: It's a chance to try on points of view in search of one that fits. The funniest scenes here involve Hal's hapless attempts to adopt his mentors' advice -- bewildering opponents with a ridiculous accent, croaking an opening statement to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Because Thompson is an endearingly gangly, gallant presence -- he has the wistful look of a hungry pup, just inches shy of a steak -- his mortification is ours.