Teenage Wasteland

By By Sam Potter

By Sam Potter

Wes Anderson has a lot to answer for. Though Anderson wasn’t the first person to craft a quirky, comedic look at teenage ambition and awkwardness, his 1999 classic “Rushmore” is becoming imitated almost as frequently as Tarantino’s films were at the turn of the century.

“Rocket Science,” the first narrative feature by writer/director Jeffery Blitz, treads territory that’s beginning to feel awfully worn in contemporary cinema. The protagonist, Hal Hefner (played competently by newcomer Reece Thompson), is a struggling teenager attempting to eke through the remainder of his high school career with as little pain as possible. The trauma of his parents’ divorce has left him with a stutter that inhibits his ability to articulate even the simplest of phrases. He lives a life that is painful, passionless and very confusing until he comes across Ginny Ryerson (fellow newcomer Anna Kendrick), the school’s motor-mouthed, emotionless debate champion.

Ginny sees great potential in him, stating that “deformed” folks such as Hal often conceal potent anger that, when placed in the arena of debate, allows them to excel.

The smitten Hal instantly joins the debate team and finds himself swept up in Ginny’s ambitions. She is soulless, emotionless and lives by the credo that “debate is life.” She sees Hal as a means to accomplishing the one feat she hasn’t yet reached: the state debate championship’s first-place trophy.

Hal couldn’t care less about the debate subject at hand (the dangers of teaching pre-marital impotence to high school students — he’s already convinced that it’s wrong), but awkwardly goes along for the ride in the hopes of winning Ginny’s affections. It is only when Hal physically manifests his feelings to Ginny that their relationship becomes truly complicated.

From the first frame it’s immediately apparent that Blitz, who made a name for himself with the sweet and passionate documentary “Spellbound” in 2002, is familiar with the tumultuous world of teenagers.

Hal’s plight is an instantly familiar one — didn’t every kid in high school do something that was completely out of their grasp in the hopes of impressing someone? The confusion Hal and his brother Earl feel about their parents’ divorce is palpable, if not fully resolved. When “Rocket Science” sticks to satire — as when it makes fun of debate students, post-divorce singles and overly ambitious teenagers — it works. The first 10 minutes of the film outline the principle characters, depict the debaters speaking at a seemingly superhuman rate and connect the departure of Ginny’s former debate partner mid-competition with the departure of Hal’s father. A smart, ingenious and poignant opening.

But Hal’s character is frustrating. His stuttering is at first cute, but grows immensely annoying. The stutter is nearly schizophrenic in nature: Hal attempts to spit out phrases, then randomly inserts non-sequiturs and asides that disconcert those listening to him. The film’s pace, known or unbeknownst to Blitz, follows a similar course. Although the central story line between Hal and Ginny is intact, Hal’s course of action in attempting to win her over is random and patience-testing. His relationship with Ginny on an emotional level is completely one-sided from the get-go, which leaves little room for suspense as to how she’ll eventually treat him. This could be due in part to Ginny’s largely one-dimensional presence — we never get a sense of why she is so driven or what her life is like outside of the debate arena. Despite the film’s brisk running time, I kept wondering when Hal would just get over her and move on.

The film’s quirkiness is also a bit of a wash. The characters surrounding Hal run the gamut of funny (his speech pathologist) to creepy (his older brother and Ginny’s perverted next-door neighbors). Despite some clever moments, much of the film’s awkward humor was just that — awkward.

With so many films treading familiar ground these days (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Chumscrubber,” “Thumbsucker”), the real question becomes whether or not we need another movie like this. Though Blitz does add a little personality to the mix with “Rocket Science,” it’s simply not enough to justify its presence.

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