PARK CITY, Utah — You don’t have to be a genius to find the funniest, most acclaimed film from Sundance’s first weekend — even if it is “Rocket Science.”
An auspicious narrative debut for “Spellbound” director Jeffrey Blitz, “Rocket Science” follows Hal Hefner (newcomer Reece Thompson) as a stutterer desperate to find his voice in the unlikeliest of places, a high school debate team.
And these debaters have taken verbal sparring a long way from the days of Lincoln and Douglas. “[Jeffrey] threw in the tape of the national collegiate championships to watch, and we couldn’t even imagine people could talk that fast,” co-star Nicholas D’Agosto recalled in awe. “It literally took me 10 minutes to break up the words. You have to train just to understand how to listen. It’s a very aggressive match, almost a physical match.”
Enter Virginia Ryerson (Anna Kendrick). Fiercely smart and ultracompetitive, Ginny recruits Hal to partner up in debate, hoping to groom him into a topnotch player for the New Jersey state finals.
It sounds like your typical high school story. It’s not.
“I have nothing against formula, except that once you know where a film is going, you’re not as invested in it,” Blitz said. “People feel like they’ve seen the high school coming-of-age story so many times that I’d be able to get my audience to really connect with the story only if they realized early on that none of the formulas applied.”
Blitz says he owes the approach to his career as a documentary filmmaker. “With documentaries you discover that there’s drama in unexpected places,” he said. “Your first instinct isn’t to rely on the standard way of shaping drama. You try to find it in places someone generally wouldn’t look.”
For Blitz, that meant reversing the dynamic of most modern teen stories, making the conniving and devious Ginny the catalyst for a Cinderella story told backwards.
“I really appreciate the fact that Jeff wrote such a strong teenage girl, because so often they’re flighty and silly and vacuous,” Kendrick said. “She’s so unapologetic and overtly vicious. She doesn’t care about boys or clothes — she’s just focused on rising above limitations, trying to prove that she’s the best.”
You thought she recruited a stutterer for the debate team out of the kindness of her heart?
“I think she has a plan from the beginning and the plan is more important,” Kendrick said. “It’s driven by an anger. Like, you wanted it, you asked for it, let’s see if you can handle it.”
With such idiosyncratic and dynamic characters, the actors say that playing broad was a constant temptation. “I was doing things that were getting laughs, which was a mistake,” admitted co-star Aaron Yoo, who plays Hal’s best friend, Heston. “It was an easy way to get to a result. But if you take Heston there, then he’s a caricature. Making him feel like a real person was the most frightening thing in the whole world.”
In contrast to past indie favorites like “Napoleon Dynamite,” the actors played even the most far-out scenarios completely straight. It was a tone they credit Blitz with establishing on the set. “I always wanted to blend deadpan comedy with a natural, real-feeling world,” Blitz said. “The dialogue is idiosyncratic, sure, but I wanted [something] genuine.”
Hal ends up seeking out former debate champion Ben Wekselbaum (D’Agosto), hoping to convince the damaged star to return for one more fight against Ginny.
Substitute the big game for the big debate, and it could almost be any high school sports movie. But asking whether or not Hal wins the match is beside the point, Blitz said.
“Who would actually win or lose, and those terms, feel like such a narrow way to live. For some people it signifies achievement, but really it has no correlation to the joy they find in their lives,” the director said. “I don’t know that I would call it a victory exactly. I think Hal has a kind of expanded awareness of his life. Maybe that’s a victory or maybe that’s just a great place to wind up as a 15-year-old.”
“Hal learns to keep going, not to worry about stupid sh–,” Thompson added. “He learns that everything will work out and to keep trying.”
And even if that’s not rocket science, it is pretty genius.
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