Indie comedies have been taking quite a beating lately. Look no further than the backlash at the once-darling “Juno” after the Oscar nominations came out; sure, most critics loved that movie, but when it start posing some challenges to the big boys of “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” out comes the hate.
I noticed a similar thing last year with “Little Miss Sunshine,” one of my favorite films from 2006. And while I don’t necessarily agree with the haters, I see their point: they, as in the movies, are just too clever, too hip, too quirky for their own good. In to what is I’m sure going to be an unending debate, comes “Rocket Science,” written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz.
“Rocket Science” tells the story of two spiritual if not actual brothers: Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto), a gifted high school debate champion who chokes during the last portion of the state competition, and Hal (Reece Thompson), a boy with no voice (due to stuttering) who watches his life float by because he lacks the words to do anything about it.
What will draw these boys together is Ginny (Anna Kendrick), Ben’s former debate partner who, after suffering a most-shocking defeat, recruits Hal for the debate team, convincing him that he’s got the something-to-prove attitude that will lead to success.
And while Hal has a severe case of verbal impotence, his hormones work just fine, fueling both his attraction to Ginny and, at long last, a desire to prove himself worthy of a debating goddess. He’s a loveable loser, and make no mistake, we want him to win; he’s a kid that’s got nothing going for him and no one telling him he can succeed. Hal is all heart, open and bruised, needing some glory to keep him going.
To Blitz’s credit, the ending isn’t what you expect and Hal is a well fleshed-out character; unfortunately, nobody else is. I watched this rooting for Hal to finally succeed because he felt real. Every other character on screen, from Hal’s family, friends, teachers, etc., is just a collection of quirks and mannerisms to drive home the point that I shouldn’t care about what I’m seeing because it and they aren’t real.
There is a lot of good things at work here, from a new crop of talented actors to a director on his first fiction film, but there’s more to a good comedy than just oddball characters trapped in small spaces, be it high school or suburbia. This, right here, is why indie comedy gets such a bad rap, and with “Rocket Science” as Exhibit A, the indies (bless their contrarian hearts) deserve it.
For a better example of indie comedy (and a funny-scary performance from Anna Kendrick), check out Todd’s Graff’s “Camp” (2003), an ode to theatrical obsessions. It’s not perfect (there are some grating one-note performances), but if you have a theater-geek past hidden away in your high school memories, this labor of love will more-than-likely find its way into your heart.
“Rocket Science” (2007)
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Starring: Reece Thompson (Hal)
Anna Kendrick (Ginny)
Nicholas D’Agosto (Ben)