We all remember the trials and tribulations of being a teen. Trying to find our own individuality amid the madness and mayhem of school, family and friends. Learning about life and love. And as if life isn’t hard enough, sometimes we get thrown a curve, like being overweight or having a lisp or, in the case of director Jeffrey Blitz, a stutter. In an effort to overcome his own condition, while in high school he joined the debate team and not only resolved his speech issues, but went on to win the New Jersey State Championships in policy debate. But what if he had not been so successful. What if his stutter remained, he couldn’t debate, was insecure and experiencing the first pangs of puppy love but was ignored and taunted by classmates and family? The answer is found in the utterly charming and witty, ROCKET SCIENCE.
Hal Hefner is the antithesis of what his surname implies. Geeky, meek and pimply-faced, he gets beat up, berated and publicly humiliated by his older brother Earl who prides himself on his skills as a thief and con artist, is picked on in their Plainsboro, New Jersey High School and stutters so badly that he can’t even order a slice of pizza in the cafeteria. Ginny Ryerson is beautiful, articulate and polished like a perfect flawless pink diamond but with a temper and argumentative talent to send your head spinning, she is best described as being in the “look but don’t touch or approach” league. But, Ginny has her demons. She is not as perfect as she wants everyone to believe. A member of the debate team, she and her partner Ben Wekselbaum were destined for glory, for greatness, in the New Jersey State High School Policy Debate Championships - that is until Ben just stopped speaking in the middle of the contest. Not just debating, but speaking, leaving Ginny embarrassed and in disgrace with hopes of victory dashed. Seeing Hal being tortured by Earl on the school bus one afternoon, Ginny intercedes, encouraging, ney, conniving, Hal to join the debate team. She needs a new partner to replace Ben who quit the team and school and she sees great promise in Hal. A diamond in the rough for her to mold to specifications. Thanks to her rapid fire, non-stop delivery, not to mention Hal falling immediately under her linguistic spell, Hal has visions of the two of them together, as a couple. No longer will he be an outsider. No longer will he be laughed at or alone. Yes sir, Ginny and Hal, together. And with that, Hal is a debater.
Although appearing more as Ginny’s research lackey than debating partner, Hal gains new confidence. He starts to believe that he can master the art of debate and rhetoric. That he can master the art of love. That he can master high school. And that he can find his voice. But, the road to success is often rocky - even in Plainsboro, New Jersey and Hal soon finds that with this new confidence, comes new responsibility and new challenges and events that will separate the men, er, the girls from the boys, forge new unexpected allegiances and force him to discover exactly from what stuff dreams and life are made.
It took director Blitz over six months to find Reece Thompson. With a two week deadline to cast Hal, it was only while going through a box of “unauthorized audition tapes” that were on their way to the dumpster, that Blitz grabbed the box, started watching and found his Hal Hefner; a fate fortuitous for Thompson and Blitz as Thompson is impeccable as Hal. Described by Blitz as “just a regular boy,” in his first lead role, he carries the film with a confidence and surety that belies the insecurities of his character. He is so convincing that one would never suspect that Reece is a non-stutterer. “The way Jeff wrote the script it was, Hal would start a sentence. He would stop himself. And there would be a pause and then say something and then go into a path or whatever. And I would think to myself, what was he saying before that and then I would keep that in mind as I was going to the scene and to know which word I wouldn’t be able to say but then to have to say the word in the script.” I was honored that Jeffrey picked me.”
Tony nominee Anna Kendrick blew me out of the water with her portrayal of Ginny. Steely and determined, Kendrick keeps you guessing as to exactly what Ginny is all about. Is she really all goodness and light in her belief and intentions with Hal? Or is there a method to her madness? Kendrick holds back, building questions about Anna, giving you the sense that something is bubbling beneath the surface before exploding with energy and emotion at precisely the right moment. Having held his own against the veterans of “Boston Legal” and “ER”, Nicholas D’Agosto brings his vast TV experience to debating king Ben Wekselbaum creating a rich dichotomous character that is so likeable and let’s face it, good looking, you can’t help but be drawn to him. Vincent Piazza is the antithesis of his character Earl Hefner which makes his performance even more appreciated given that he pulls off the nasty, thieving older brother with such zealous enthusiasm to be delightful. And I would be remiss not to mention one of my favorite character actors, Margo Martindale, who steps in as Coach Lumbley. She is, as always, a treat.
Ideal casting and a good story aren’t enough with ROCKET SCIENCE. Key to the film and the characters of Ginny, Ben and to an extent Hal, are the mastery of debating skills which of course brought up training techniques for what is called in the debate world - spreading. When I asked Kendrick if she called on her Broadway training for the enunciation, emoting and debating and technique of debating she stated “It’s the diligence. I was expecting there to being some kind of technique to teach yourself how to do it, but there wasn’t.”
But, according to Kendrick, “We had debate boot camp with a debating coach. We were taking notes on how a debate is formatted and the coach who demonstrated the style of spreading to us and then attempting it after that. It was sort of awesome and terrifying. It took most of your concentration just to discern that they were speaking English. I sounded more like Hal on his first try. I had to lock myself in my room and try it over and over again.” When it came to the actual shoot, Blitz even had a few tricks up his sleeve. “On the day that we were shooting, he gives me an extra three paragraphs to spread. For example, I have to spread an example of an entire debate in 10 seconds, so I would time myself to make sure I was getting it in under 10 seconds.” With the added dialogue, she had to spread even faster. And as was confirmed by D’Agosto, and much to Kendrick’s surprise, during our interviews he revealed for the first time that he had actually timed her performances and she did meet her 10 second time. The joy in her face said it all with that bit of information.
D’Agosto expounds on the experience. “We watched the video on the national collegiate championship debate and they are extremely adept at it and their astounding speeds and the way that they could spread. We tried to keep up with that as best we could. We didn’t come close to what they could do but in trying that we got to a certain level. “
It’s certainly not rocket science for director Jeffrey Blitz when it comes to creative and innovative storytelling. He has a gift, an innate talent for thinking outside of the box. Drawing on his own life experience mixing fact with fiction, he developed well crafted and well developed characters to a delightful entertaining result. “When I was working on ‘Spellbound’ and I was living in this teen world I kept wondering what if a I meet a kid who is hyperarticulate with these SAT words. What if I meet a kid who is joined up or sort of got involved in spelling because he was involved with a girl. So these story ideas would occur to me and then those stories wouldn’t really come true. So I was left with all this sense of all the ways it could have gone but didn’t go. So when HBO films’ Maude Adler said that she wanted to do my first picture film, I said I have all these ideas while working on Spellbound that I would like to explore. And somewhere into it I told her my own high school story where I stuttered and got involved in debate. And she said, ‘Stop. That’s the story that you must do.’ So, with Maude’s encouragement I started writing.”
As to the art of debating, Blitz said, “I didn’t think it was easy for anyone to learn. Just handling the normal dialogue is a really complex thing. It was far more important that the actors appear like they were comprehending what they were saying rather than the speed. Speed could be trained. To get the intellectual and emotional stuff right was more the draw.” And he and his cast do “get the stuff right” with great success.
Set in New Jersey (but shot in Maryland thanks to lenient child labor laws and tax breaks), Blitz wanted the movie to have a timeless feeling about it, part of that being achieved with a hand picked soundtrack. “It’s set in the present and there a few little clues to that, but I wanted to be able to see it, to feel like ‘that could be my high school experience there.’ This is so much about a search for love or when love proves to be elusive” thus leading Blitz to use numerous tracks from his favorite band, The Violent Femmes.
Humor, compassion, tenderness, forgiveness and friendship. The trials and tribulations of youth and of life told with heartfelt emotion and some well executed deadpan comedy. A little off-beat and a lot of fun. It’s ROCKET SCIENCE.
Reece Thompson - Hal Hefner
Anna Kendrick - Ginny Ryerson
Nicholas D’Agosto - Ben Wekselbaum
Earl Hefner - Vincent Piazza
Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz. Rated R. (98 min)
Photos by Jim Bridges. © 2006 Picturehouse.