The first few minutes of “Rocket Science” – convoluted, strange and totally enthralling – are the only time the movie really comes to life. Two scenes are set simultaneously, and two teenage boys come on screen. The prototypically dorky Hal (Reece Thompson) is alone at home as his parents are in what sounds like their last fight as spouses. Miles away, the older, self-assured Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto) is at the New Jersey state high school debate finals, barreling through his ingenious final speech. In a faux-comic bout of rage, Hal’s father leaves; Ben, amid his intense speech, falls completely silent. A low voice-over comments on their shared experience of peace.
It’s a beguiling moment, intense and urgent, and it foretells a movie with much more creative ambition than another addition to the independent coming-of-age cannon. That, as it turns out, is almost exactly what the movie is, down to the mannered eccentricities and compromised first love. Hal, the boilerplate hero, is a target for his classmates, especially his brother, who pummel him partially because of a brutal stutter. After the first scene, we cut to the next fall, when his father has moved out and his mother’s new boyfriend has moved in. Basically, it seems, nothing has changed. Ben, meanwhile, has dropped out of school and sight, though he remains a figurehead of local legend.
Then comes Ginny (Anna Kendrick), Ben’s old debate partner, who says Hal should take his place on the team and compete with her. He stutters. She corrects. He loves. She manipulates. He kisses. She leaves. He freaks.
The movie does avoid some conventionality in what begins as a typical adolescent romance (cute! weird! cute!) and ends in a surprisingly messy way, and it has the mercy not to end with a climactic championship. We care about these characters more than that, and so does writer-director Jeffrey Blitz, who makes his fiction film debut here after his sweetly nuanced documentary “Spellbound.” The movie is obviously personal, and he has some special young actors, especially Thompson and D’Agosto, who spend the film’s final act together and play off each other well.
What the film is not is new, neither in conceit nor in spirit. It fits right in with its independent forbearers in an attempt to find honesty in regular genre characters. As endeared as we become to some of them, “Rocket Science” doesn’t come close to anything other than agreeable teen parable, and in a landscape as saturated as this, that isn’t enough.
At the State Theater
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars