Rocket Science

Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz is the man behind one of the most entertaining documentaries in recent memory: 2002's Spellbound. After the runaway success of his geeky-kids-in-a-spelling-bee movie, it was expected that Blitz would soon be getting offers to direct a non-documentary, and his choice of subject matter for his first dramatic feature seemed like a perfect fit: geeky kids on a high school debate team.

The only problem is that designer/music video director Mike Mills already made that movie: the underrated 2005 indie Thumbsucker.

Blitz, lacking the all-star cast that Mills had access to, takes a cue from Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse and plops his story in Solondz's Darwinian New Jersey, a quiet suburban hell where outcasts receive neither love nor justice, and families are kinky and cruel. But lacking the bite of Dollhouse and the style of Thumbsucker, the well-acted Rocket Science has nowhere to go.

It doesn't help that its nerdy teenage protagonist (Reece Thompson) is an incurable stutterer who takes half a minute to get through a single sentence - if he even makes it to the end of one. Having your main character stammer furiously through every scene may look good on paper, but it quickly grows wearying on the screen. And like many a coming-of-age movie, there's an unpleasant misogyny hiding behind the usual "girls are a mystery to our young hero" theme. Where Rocket Science falters especially is in trying to convince us of the love that its stutterer has for a cutthroat debate champion (Anna Kendrick) who rather unbelievably insists that he'd make a great debate partner for her.

I wanted to like this movie so much, but all I can say is that it's got a great young cast (Vincent Piazza, as Thompson's nearly psychotic brother, steals every scene he's in) and doesn't talk down to its audience. But there's so much wasted potential here. And Blitz's decision to add a clumsy third-person narrator and a "cool" Violent Femmes soundtrack (the rights for which probably ate up the bulk of the film's astonishingly high $6 million budget) says he's trying too hard. Better luck next time, Jeffrey.