There is a lot of cozy appeal in the traditional Hughesian high-school comedy — the readily identifiable cliques, the familiar moments and structure, and the way they always seem to end on a warm-and-fuzzy high note. They don’t make them like they used to, of course (see, e.g., John Tucker Must Die), but I suspect that the current generation of high-schoolers may grow up and spend their 20s and 30s sitting in front of TBS on Sunday afternoons watching and even enjoying their third-generation swill, like many of us do any time the first generation (Heathers, Breakfast Club) or even second generation (Can’t Hardly Wait, Clueless) high-school comedies are re-run. The real comfort in these films is that they manage to recall high school without actually depicting much of its reality (though, who knows — maybe the tweeners these days do bear a remarkable resemblance to the students in Bring It On: All or Nothing — the comments seem to suggest as much).
The truth, at least for those of us who had a scintilla of self-awareness in high school, was that while the cliques sort of existed on the periphery of our consciousness, high school was often one lonely fucking place. Even among those who could identify (at least retroactively) with a certain subset of folks (band geeks, jocks, burn-outs, cheer-hos, etc.), 90 percent of our days were spent trapped inside our own goddamn minds, which, for a 16-year-old, is the last place on Earth you want to be. Teenagers have absolutely zero sense of their own limitations; they are engaged in a constant struggle between best-case and worst-case scenario daydreaming, and that mindset alone makes it infinitely believable to see a kid with a paralyzing stutter to convince himself that he is capable of impressing a girl by competing on a policy debate team that excels at spreading (a rapid-fire delivery technique used in the policy style of debate).
And that’s what I love about Rocket Science — more than anything I think I’ve seen in years (at least since “Freaks and Geeks”), Jeffrey Blitz actually manages to capture what it feels like to be in high-school. Even if the exact situations aren’t entirely familiar, the feelings and sentiments of that time and place are. He manages to rekindle those angsty, confused, insecure, achy, excited, scared-pissless feelings I had on my way to the first day of school or standing in front of a classroom or even approaching a girl in the hallway and trying to muster the courage to eke out a substantive half-sentence that didn’t make me look like a complete and total dumbass (a feat I only realize now was impossible). And Blitz, who also wrote the script, does something even more powerful: He finds the grace … the illumination … the motherfucking epiphany that can inhere in rejection, failure, and heartbreak, and then poses a question I suspect we all wondered post-puberty: Why does love have to be like rocket science?
Granted, I’m certain to lose a few credibility points with the cynical among you turned off by the indie formulism of Rocket Science: Yes — there’s a certain amount of whimsy, a little out of the Wes Anderson playbook, a lot of quirky, and a bit too much Violent Femmes. But, the tone and trajectory of Rocket Science set it apart from other indies of its ilk, like the wistfully melancholic Thumbsucker or the satirical Election (and if anyone tries to compare it to Napoleon Dynamite you get an e-stapler shoved up your ass). Rocket Science has Wes Anderson’s style wrapped around the heart of early Cameron Crowe, but even that description does a disservice to Jeffrey Blitz’s work — a whip-smart, undeniably sweet movie about self-realization, finding your voice, and taking control of your destiny, even if you don’t know what the hell to do with it once you’ve taken it over.
The film, which begins with Dan Cashman’s sublime narration (it sounds eerily similar to Ricky Jay’s in Magnolia) lays the groundwork: Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agoso) is in the middle of the state championship policy debate finals when, suddenly, he has an epiphanic realization — in the grand scheme of his life, debate means nothing — and he quits mid-sentence, leaving his debate partner, the ridiculously ambitious and Type-A Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) weeping in a bathroom stall with her second-place trophy. Meanwhile, at that very same moment, Hal Hefner’s father is leaving his mother, a cataclysmic confluence of events that puts our story into motion and ties the fate of Ben and Hal together.
Hal is a shy, awkwardly insecure misfit at Plainsboro High, where the calculating, exceedingly articulate and oh-dear-lord-cute-in-that-sort-of-way-I-found-irresistible-when-I-was-16 Ginny — who could run fucking circles around Tracy Flick — recruits Hal to be her new partner, believing that she can break him down and mold him into the sort of master debater that Ben Wekselbaum once was. Hal (Reece Thompson) has no flipping idea what he’s doing, but believes that — propelled by the power of his affection for Ginny — he can somehow overcome his stutter and be what Ginny envisions him to be. That he will be the best debater in New Jersey. And that Ginny Ryerson will fall madly, deeply in love with him.
Perhaps in John Hughes world, that’s exactly what might’ve happened. Hell, even in Wes Anderson’s world, everything would probably lead up to some overblown (if unexpected) grand finale that would intoxicate suckers like me for days. But here, Blitz takes us somewhere unexpected — a completely unpredictable direction by any director’s standards — to a place that’s never quite broken my heart in the way that this movie does. I don’t want to say too much, except to say that seeing someone order food — and witnessing the flood of self-realization that accompanies it — has never moved me the way that it does in Rocket Science.
Indeed, after six months of reflection, I continue to stand by what I wrote about Rocket Science a few hours after I watched it (twice) at Sundance: “It is about the ignominious torture of high school; it’s about the unknown, and speech, and the triumph of Trenton, New Jersey; it’s about Clem Snide, and love, and revenge, and it’s about ordering a fucking slice of pizza. But mostly, what it’s not about is cheap victories, or false epiphanies, or phony climaxes. It was like an infectious pop song that gets caught in your craw — for two days, images and snippets of dialogue floated around in my head, and I thought that by watching it again I might be able to exorcise it from my brain. It may sound hyperbolic, but I haven’t felt this way about a film since Bottle Rocket, a movie that I watched every day for two weeks in 1996, in the hopes of somehow exhausting it from my subconscious. Rocket Science, obviously, felt more real, more identifiable, and more heartfelt, but it possessed the same unidentifiable essence. It was truly transcendent — how many films can elicit simultaneous applause and tears? It’s real. And it is absolutely perfect, a film I expect I’ll watch 20 times over and never find a flaw.”
I realize, of course, that even perfection is a subjective notion and that a huge contingent of readers won’t agree with me. But I don’t give a shit. Rocket Science is the best movie I’ve seen this year. And I guarantee that you will never hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” the same again.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Rocket Science / Dustin Rowles
Film | August 9, 2007 | Comments ()