ROCKET SCIENCE written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, with Reece Daniel Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D'Agosto, Vincent Piazza and Aaron Yoo. An Odeon release. 98 minutes. Opens Friday (August 17). Rating: NNN
Park City, Utah -- After Jeffrey Blitz scored a breakout hit with the documentary Spellbound, he looked around for another great idea. Actually, he didn't look that far. His feel for the high-stakes world of spelling bees arose from his own childhood success in high-school debating. For Rocket Science he went back to school, but straight to the more complicated, awkward source.
Blitz was a champion debater who also suffered from stuttering. It was too good a premise to pass up. So for his directorial debut in fiction, he channelled his own delicious angst into a classic outsider story. Reece Daniel Thompson plays a smart kid with a debilitating stutter. The school's aggressive head Heather invites him to join the debating team, sure she can make him a winner.
Better than most high school movies, Rocket Science nails the Darwinian conflict to decide winners and losers.
"It has a particularly aggressive face in high school," says Blitz, "but I think the raw emotional stuff still exists. Some people have told me they'll pick out certain characters in Rocket Science and say, "I was like this person, and this guy was like my friend' or whatever. I think that has less to do with recognizing themselves in the character than with understanding what their role was in the world of high school."
Blitz sits with his young star in a hotel courtyard during the Sundance Film Festival. Although he's become expert at delineating loserdom in detail, days later he'll win again, this time the Sundance prize for best drama director.
Pressed to name his own high school identity, he says, "I would describe myself either as a winner among losers or a loser among winners."
Thompson, although he's still a teenager, actually had to draw on real acting skills to portray the class victim in the film. He's been home-schooled since Grade 6 in Vancouver, so has no real idea how to handle himself in a cafeteria.
"I'm an actor, and I have a lot of friends who are actors who are actually in high school," he notes. "It's very weird when you spend time on set working with adults and then all of a sudden you're back associating with teenagers. You get an adult perspective looking in, which makes it easier to portray an actual teenager."
And the falling over was pretty easy. Blitz's script writes Reece's character as a teenage boy in full awkward gangle.
"Somebody else asked me whether I had a coach for stumbling around and stuff like that," Thompson says. "But I dunno, that's always come naturally to me."
"Blessed with clumsiness," Blitz adds.
"Yeah," Thompson says. "But I can turn it on and off."
The stuttering was harder.
Instead of simply giving his character a humiliating speech impediment, Blitz recalls, "I wanted his sentences to be really roundabout, which had more comic potential. Instead of not saying anything, he says the wrong things, or he formulates sentences in really odd ways."
That leads to a huge payoff over one simple word late in the movie.
In its best scenes, Rocket Science finds a perfect balance between teenage humiliation as most people remember it and a kind of goofball optimism that comes from the shaping hand of fiction. That's exactly what Blitz wanted.
"When you work on a documentary, you're always wondering where the film will go. You're left with all these thoughts about how the story could have developed. Fiction allowed me to answer a lot of those what-ifs."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Blitz on high-school angst
Blitz on theories about stuttering
Blitz on making audiences squirm or feel uncomfortable
Thompson on his career direction, and possibly leaving Canada
ROCKET SCIENCE (Jeffrey Blitz) Rating: NNN
In his fiction debut, hit doc Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz stays with the lovable teen quirks he knows but nudges the story into Wes Anderson territory.
Vancouver actor Reece Thompson plays a high school loser with a debilitating stutter. In an act of classic teenage perversity, the school's brainy hottie picks him to join the debating team.
Blitz's writing is excellent, and Thompson shows uncanny skill with physical comedy and verbal catastrophe. But scenes that verge on intense discomfort make this the most cringeworthy movie of the year.