Quirky sucks, especially when it's done for quirk's sake. For the better part of the last decade, quirky has been the golden egg for independent distribution and for cult-classicism, even when most of the films have nothing else but their quirkiness to stand by. You can see it in the films of Jared Hess or the insanely-overrated Little Miss Sunshine: If the words "dysfunctional" or "quirky" can be found in the press notes, the chances of notoriety just increased tenfold. In that mindset, initial reactions to a film like Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science could pin it as yet another in a long line of Wes Anderson/Todd Solondz rip-offs, and in some ways, it sorta is.
Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) really can't help but be humiliated; he stutters like it was going out of style. How would this lead him to his high school debate team? Well, the debate team happens to be led by silver-tongued Ginny (Anna Kendrick), an all-business upperclassman who thinks she can mold Hal into a thorough debater. As you might not expect, Ginny's efforts go to spit and she leaves the school for the higher-ranking debate team. But Hal is relentless, determined to both kick the habit and impress Ginny. Ben (Nicholas D'Agosto), a mythical debater who quit debating to work at a city laundry, seems to be his only hope. Ben's got one idea: teaching Hal to debate by singing his argument along to "The Battle of the Republic" and showing everyone up at the state competition.
Like Blitz's Oscar-nominated Spellbound, a sharp documentary about pre/early-teens on the road to the National Spelling Bee, his fictional Rocket Science lives on the ebb-and-flow of high school humiliation. Where Blitz's film trips you up is in the director's compelling restraint and his ability to earn small victories rather than grasping at large ones. Ginny's short fascination with Hal is just that: a passing fancy, an affable interest. When she moves to the new school, her interest sways to a debater of her caliber and she becomes indifferent to Hal's awkward dead-calm. These moments show Hal most fruitfully, realizing the impotence in his attempts while he goes for it anyway. The quirkiness here directly influences the story and surrounding characters without defining the film's aesthetics.
Blitz gives the floor to Hal, ultimately, and Thompson couldn't be better. He swerves and skids all over the teenage lexicon, going through the tortures of the damned just to spout out an "OK." The unique ability to focus on small victories conjures up a rare sincerity in Blitz's film. Defeat after defeat, Hal continues to be addicted to the shambling confidence he gets from his fleeting moments with Ginny. Filmed with a steady hand by cinematographer Jo Willems, Blitz gives Hal one last win before the film's end, and it's so oddly touching that Hal can't help but raise his arms in victory. Attempting to pretend that big victories happen if you just try is a childish notion, and Blitz knows that the last thing teenagers should be called is childish (immature, confused, and frustrated, OK). It's in the small victories, like Hal's, that we find any scrap of hope. Dreaming of anything bigger is about as useless as throwing a cello through a girl's window to get her attention.
Don't call me Napoleon.