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To anyone thinking about writing, directing, starring in, or providing catering for a movie: Please, enough with Napoleon Dynamite Syndrome already. Nerd stories may have been around since the birth of nerds, but there’s a difference between focusing on the unpopular—as in Superbad—and “celebrating” the just plain weird. Rocket Science, unsurprisingly a Sundance favorite, falls into the latter category, this time propping up a high school stutterer and his odd family and friends for evisceration/good fun.
To his credit, first-time feature writer-director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) doesn’t make his central character, Hal Hefner (what an ironic name!), a colorful idiot. (Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of those here anyway.) Instead, Hal (Reece Daniel Thompson) is a smart if shy New Jersey kid with a speech impediment, one so bad that he practices his lunch order on the bus ride to school. His parents have just split up—loudly and unexpectedly—and his brother, Earl (Vincent Piazza), is a bullying thief. Hal isn’t totally friendless, though: There’s his neighbor and classmate, Heston (Aaron Yoo), an Asian who does nothing but smilingly, creepily leer at whatever’s going on and, it’s implied, is sexually confused. (His dad, “Judge Pete,” isn’t, however, as he’s banging Hal’s mom.) And eventually there’s Lewis (Josh Kay), an 11-year-old who invites Hal in for 7-Up after questioning Hal’s right to ride his bike in front of Lewis’ house. (Lewis’ parents are—you’ll love this—always shown playing “Blister in the Sun” on the cello and piano as part of their marital therapy.)
The reason Hal began lurking on Lewis’ street to begin with is Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a cute but ruthless senior who’s a star on the debate team. Ginny used to be paired with another sharp talker, the slick, good-looking Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto). On the night of an important debate, however—the very night Hal’s and Earl’s father walks out!—Ben falls silent in the middle of his argument and drops out of school. And so Ginny recruits Hal to replace Ben, impolitely reasoning that “deformed people are the best—maybe because they have a deep reserve of anger.”
Ginny’s strategy continually and painfully proves to be a bad idea, yet she persists in trying to mold Hal—and he, naturally in love, improbably continues to let her despite his multiple failures. It turns out that some sort of scheme is involved, but it doesn’t make much sense. Then again, nothing besides Hal’s stutter and the deep hurt it causes him feels real here. Thompson will make you ache—though not over Hal’s alleged crush on the baby-faced beeyatch, who, even if her debate skills are impressive, is not for one moment likable. But Thompson makes his character’s emotional wounds palpable as he tries to speak the words so clearly being bullhorned inside his head. Blitz is trying to communicate worthy messages, predominantly about finding one’s own voice and taking chances. But they’re so bogged down in preciousness that you can’t see the intentions beneath the quirks.