You know when a movie is so coyingly pretentious that it just can't help itself but be preachy while not really answering the questions it poses? You know when a character has such a hard time with something that you want to just smack him upside the head, hoping to motivate him a bit? You know when characters are introduced for no reason other than to set up a punch line, and yet, long after that punch line has been laughed at, the character remains in the story? "Rocket Science," a story about a stuttering young man on the debate team, is annoyingly independent, tongue-in-cheek holier than thou, and the primary reason art house movies get a bad name.
As Hal Hefner's father walks out on him, his brother and his mother, the stuttering high school student is invited to join the debate team by Ginny Ryerson, a better-than-everyone-else type of student who lost the debate trophy the year before when her partner flaked on her. Her mission is to "fix" Hal, making him the premier member of the team and cementing her status as a miracle worker.
"Rocket Science" begins and ends with a rather pointless voiceover that focuses on the nature of love, mostly. It's from this beginning that the audience starts having an inkling something isn't going to be quite right with the narrative. Ostensibly, Hal wants to excel at the debate because he has fallen head over heels for Ginny, hoping to impress her with how good of a speaker he turns out to be. I'm guessing we can all figure out how the story ends, can't we? That's only half the fault of screenwriter/director Jeffrey Blitz; stories like this can really only go in one of two ways. Either the main character makes a remarkable breakthrough, or he ends up being humiliated.
(Next paragraph spoiler?)
This isn't an inspirational story. Guess how "Rocket Science" ends.
There's a very basic reason why this film doesn't work. The premise is simply unbelievable. It's a well-known fact in this school that Hal has a speaking problem. And, I'm no expert, but I have to believe that putting the kid on the spot--in a play and then again as a debater--is nothing but cruel and unusual punishment for something out of his hands. What teacher or adviser would allow that? Is everyone as caught up in the search for Ginny's crown as to think she can make headway with Hal? Even when the school's so-called expert can't do anything? (For the record, he'd be a bigger help if Hal suffered from hyperactivity.)
Everything about the events on screen want to have a basis in reality, yet none of it feels real, let alone comes close to being real. Adults are too comical or dense (depending on which the script calls for) to help Hal in any meaningful way; the kids are either plucky versions of Ginny or caricatures (like Hal's older brother). And when the Big Emotional Scene comes at the very end of the film between Hal and his father, we have to ask ourselves why this deadbeat dad's brain is being picked on this particular subject. He seems to have no positive experience with it to offer Hal.
I imagine the crew behind "Rocket Science" are thrilled beyond belief at what they were able to put on screen. It makes them feel smart, superior and independent. Judging by the film, I'd also hazard a guess that the people who don't like the film--myself included--are unsophisticated schlubs who "don't get it." The thing is, there is nothing here to get. No life lesson, no revelation from on high about how to live your life. Nothing. Aside from a fantastic performance from Reece Thompson who plays Hal, "Rocket Science" is an attempt by a writer-director to gain indie credibility.
It doesn't work because, as I said, even the premise is fundamentally flawed. This isn't a hyper-reality or a riff on modern reality; it's Blitz's reality in which the kids are pseudo-intelligent and the adults can't gain any sort of traction in their own lives. For instance, Hal's mother begins to shack up with Judge Pete, the father of one of his friends. In the middle of the night, Hal hears the two having sex…and Judge Pete telling his mother to "use her finger." Any parent would be mortified to be overheard engaging in "normal" sex by a child, but for Hal to know their sexual proclivities? No mention of it is made, perhaps to the betterment of the film (and the audience's mental well being).
A subplot seemingly tacked onto the film designed to redeem Ginny's former partner, Ben, falls equally as flat. He hopes to mentor Hal in such a way the boy will be able to compete in the district debate tournament. Regardless of experts not being able to solve his stuttering and neither of them actually attending school anymore, Ben thinks he can take over Ginny's job. Despite giving it the old college try, the inevitable happens. And Ben isn't nearly as upset over it as he should be, leading the audience to collectively shrug their shoulders, mentally asking, Who cares?
We don't, that's for sure. Independent movies aren't independent because the director wants them to be an "indie." That's not the way it works. Cloying, too cutesy, "Rocket Science" is that kind of movie. One that thinks it's going to change the world and be the second coming of "Little Miss Sunshine," last year's indie darling. Or even "Napoleon Dynamite." Please. It's not the second coming of anything, except maybe the second coming of sleeping pills.
"Rocket Science," flaws and all, rates a 4 out of 10. A massive script-polish is the only thing that could have saved this turkey.