If nothing else, Rocket Science makes you look back on writer-director Jeffrey Blitz's Spellbound with a keener, more discerning eye. There was always a peculiar undercurrent to his otherwise orthodox documentary about eight teenagers on their quest to win the National Spelling Bee, lingering over the eccentric, semi-stunted lives of its subjects as much as the road through the competition itself.
What at the time seemed voyeuristic assumes a more empathetic air once you conclude that Blitz is projecting his own opinion—and probably experience—of adolescence and life through Rocket Science's Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), a 14-year-old stutterer and social misfit who joins his high school debate team to impress the first girl who takes notice of him. The child of divorced parents and brother to a kleptomaniac, Hal is puzzled yet smitten when he is "ferreted out" to join the team by classmate Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). Part chain-smoking sexpot, part academic drill sergeant, Ginny tells him that the best debaters are those with internal anger and something to prove.
That nugget of truth wanes, however, when compared to the humiliations Hal suffers because of his speech impediment. In contrast to Ginny—for whom debate is life and life is debate—Hal knows all the answers but lacks the means and confidence to express them. The resulting spectacle is agonizing to witness as Hal's flight of fancy is regularly interrupted by layovers with an after-school counselor and the refuge of the janitor's closet.
On its surface, Rocket Science is yet another quirky black comedy about teenage insecurity and infatuation forged from the same mold as the surfeit of coming-of-age dramedies that each year winds its way through the Sundance Film Festival, where Rocket Science was nominated for the 2007 Grand Jury Prize. Among the plethora of conceivable comparisons, perhaps the most apposite is an amalgam of Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse and Alexander Payne's Election (as well as the far-less renowned Thumbsucker) without the degrees of ruthless realism in the former and searing satire in the latter.
Thompson gives a sublime lead performance that draws you in. But, among the solid supporting players, the real revelation is Kendrick—the 22-year-old who is the second-youngest person ever nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Dinah in High Society—who steals her every scene and gives an awards-caliber performance before disappearing for most of the latter half of the film.
Still, cruel reality is the film's tableau: For all the platitudes about discovering opportunity in misery, redemption comes, as it often does, not from victory but from merely managing to exasperate your enemy. And, lest the audience begin to take the narrative for granted, Blitz turns genre convention on its head by making us momentarily believe in an absurd Rocky-style ending—in which Hal would win the debate tournament by arguing to the syncopation to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—before he jerks the rug out from under us.
Rocket Science is self-conscious and pretentious, but not without purpose. As explicated by its closing scene, the film is a sobering reminder of the post-adolescent realization that while adult life ultimately may not be about proms and football games and debate competitions, for many people it may never amount to much more than that.
Rocket Science opens Friday in select theaters.
If a little pretension spices up Rocket Science, it goes a long, long way in The Ten, writer-director David Wain and the rest of The State comedy troupe's unofficial riff on Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog, a series of 10 short films based upon the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, Wain's compilation of loosely interconnected vignettes forgets the first commandment of comedy: Thou Shalt Be Funny.
From a narrative and production-value perspective, The Ten bears all the trappings of a film school project distended by the steroid of star-wattage. Indeed, the sole kernel of entertainment reaped from watching this smug, misbegotten mess is the revolving cavalcade of A-to-C-list celebrities whose presence can only be explained by way of mistake, desperation, a bad agent or owing someone a big favor.
The shorts vary only in their watchability: None of them especially illuminate their particular divine directive, and most of them make no sense. For example, a doctor (co-writer Ken Marino) who kills his patient "as a goof" finds himself locked a prison-rape love triangle. Then there's Gretchen Mol, who uses the Lord's name in vain while losing her virginity to Jesus Christ (Justin Theroux). And Paul Rudd, playing the part of the film's pseudo-narrator, gets to make out with his wife (Famke Janssen) and girlfriend (Jessica Alba), but all three are wasted on nothing roles.
On the other hand, I will accept (to a certain level) anything that allows for another regrettably infrequent appearance by Winona Ryder, who in two woefully written vignettes manages to act circles around the rest of her castmates. The self-deprecating irony of Ryder starring in the sequence about the perils of stealing is a flicker of inspiration; the sight of Ryder having sex with a ventriloquist's puppet is proof of a career interrupted.
The Ten is opening soon.