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Teen Movies Don’t Interest Me

July 16th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Rocket Science, 2007, poster Rocket Science, 2007, DVD

Rocket Science (2007)
Written by Jeffrey Blitz
Directed by Jeffrey Blitz
Produced by B&W Films/ Duly Noted, Inc./ HBO Films
Running time: 101 minutes

By Joe Valdez

So, What’s This About?

While arguing against farm subsidies at the New Jersey State High School Policy Debate Championships, Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto) — the greatest public speaker that Plainsboro High School has ever known — suddenly loses his voice. Back in Plainsboro, high school sophomore Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) and his kleptomaniac older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) watch as their exasperated father (Denis O’Hare) walks out on their mother. The stutter that makes it impossible for Hal to order pizza in the school cafeteria, much less talk to other students, leaves his special needs counselor (Maury Ginsberg) wildly grasping at solutions.

Hal is “ferreted” by the stunningly articulate Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) to join the debate team. After her ex-partner Ben washed out at state and mysteriously dropped out of school, Ginny covets a championship trophy and believes that beneath Hal’s “deformity” lies a deep resource of anger that can help her win. Studying their debate topic — abstinence — with Ginny, or spying on her from the bedroom of her goofy adolescent neighbor (Josh Kay), Hal falls in love. But after sharing a whirlwind kiss in the janitor’s room, the relationship between the academic partners sours. To get revenge on the debate stage, Hal goes in search of Ben Wekselbaum.

Rocket Science, 2007, Reece Daniel Thompson, Nicholas D'Agosto

Who Made It?

Jeffrey Blitz and his producer/sound recordist Sean Welch financed their debut feature — the spelling bee documentary Spellbound — by piling up debt on 14 credit cards. After Spellbound received some of the best reviews of 2002 and was nominated for an Academy Award, Blitz and Welch didn’t have to apply for more plastic to get their next film going. At the Independent Spirit Awards, Blitz met Effie Brown, who was accepting a Producers Award for Real Women Have Curves. Brown had a deal at HBO Films and initially worked with Blitz on the script for a spelling bee movie.

How’d They Do It?
Brown stated, “He has such a wicked sense of humor; and that’s something that people don’t nail. His humor is smart and not malicious, but it’s definitely a bit self-effacing. That’s what drew me to him. His film, Spellbound, completely had me riveted. I was trying to spell words and I was so rooting for all those kids.” The idea of scripting a spelling bee movie didn’t work out, but in talking with Maud Nadler — the senior VP of theatrical films at HBO — Blitz shared his experiences attending high school in central New Jersey with a serious speech impediment and how he attempted to overcome it as a member of the debate team.

Rocket Science, 2007, Maury Ginsberg, Emily Ginnona, Reece Daniel Thompson

Everyone agreed that the high school debate script was the one Blitz should be writing. The filmmaker recalled, “Teen movies don’t interest me, is the thing. They don’t interest me at all, so the only way I was going to do a teen movie is if I felt like I could try to be more honest about what the actual experience of being a teenager is like. I guess teen movies want to be escapist fantasies for high school students, but to me they’re bullshit because they’re all formulaic. As soon as you can predict where the movie is going, which is the first 10 seconds of any teenage movie, you know exactly how it’s going to resolve. It’s completely uninteresting to me.”

Blitz continued, “I wanted to feel like I could create a story that felt like it follows the contours the world a little more, but at the same time it’s not strictly a piece of realism. There’s absurdist comedy that I wanted to bring into it also and try to find that balance. That’s why for me people like Billy Wilder and Hal Ashby are the guys that I look towards to figure out how to bring realism, naturalism into a movie that still has outlandish characters and people who do things that are really funny!” Brown added, “Jeff created fabulous, well-rounded characters that you don’t get to see everyday. But no one’s made fun of. You root for them all.”

Rocket Science, 2007, Anna Kendrick, Reece Daniel Thompson

After another actor dropped out over scheduling, Vancouver native Reece Daniel Thompson was spotted on an audition tape; he was flown to Baltimore to audition and won the role of Hal. Anna Kendrick had auditioned in L.A. Blitz recalled, “She’s just about the only person who came in to read who could actually handle the dialogue. Jinny talks so fast, I mean, she just sort of blazes through it, but the person saying those lines needs to understand what she’s saying, even though she’s going, you know, a million miles an hour. And Anna just nailed it.” Budgeted at $6 million, Rocket Science began a 30-day shooting schedule July 2005 in Baltimore.

To serve as director of photography, Blitz turned Jo Willems, who’d collaborated with Blitz on “spec” commercials the director had used to break into the industry. Blitz hoped the Belgian cinematographer’s European sensibility would balance the emotional side of the movie with its deadpan humor. The result was a drably lit and everyday high school look. Yana Gorskaya — who had cut Spellbound — was brought in as editor. While cutting, Blitz and Gorskaya used temp tracks from the band Clem Snide, whose singer/ songwriter Eef Barzelay ultimately wrote the film’s instrumental score.

Rocket Science, 2007, Reece Daniel Thompson, Vincent Piazza

Rocket Science was very well received at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, where Blitz won the Dramatic Directing Award for his work. Critics were also effusive with praise. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun Times: “I suspect a lot of high school students will recognize elements of real life in the movie, and that the movie will build a following. It may gross as little as Welcome to the Dollhouse or as much as Clueless, but whichever it does, it’s in the same league.” Justin Chang, Variety: “This unusually voluble comedy is as eloquent about love, self-realization and adolescent angst as its protagonist is endearingly tongue-tied.”

Distributed by Picturehouse, Rocket Science opened August 2007. Audiences ignored it completely. Never expanding beyond 59 screens, the film grossed only $714,943 in the United States. Blitz would muse, “I think sometimes marketing campaigns hit and the whole thing works and sometimes they don’t at all. Some of this has to do with knowing the audience and really understanding to whom you’re marketing.” He added, “I think in the future I’ll try to be stronger in sharing my sense of the audience and the right tone of the marketing. But it’s hard to say. Each project seems like it comes with its own fresh set of challenges.”

Rocket Science, 2007

Should I Care?
No stars. Low budget. Content that left me to shift nervously on my sofa. These were elements that Jeffrey Blitz’s debut Spellbound and his sophomore effort Rocket Science both share. The follow-up isn’t nearly as good because of several defects in its script. There’s an attempt at a storybook feel in the form of a narrator, which not only chills the film a bit emotionally, but calls attention to how much better Wes Anderson is at whimsical mood setting. As hilarious it is at turns — I busted out laughing three or four times — just as many bits stop the movie cold, especially a subplot involving a Korean judge (Stephen Park) dating Hal’s mom that falls totally flat.

While Blitz made a few rookie missteps as a screenwriter, he’s without a doubt a director to watch. The performances in Rocket Science are wonderful. I wouldn’t be surprised if Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick and Vincent Piazza are all stars 10 years from now. Piazza sorta reminds me of Matt Dillon. Kendrick recalls Reese Witherspoon’s hilarious performance in Election, while Thompson superbly captures every awkward impulse — romantic or otherwise — we all had in high school. The joy of Rocket Science is that it gets those growing pains absolutely right.

Your thoughts?

Rocket Science, 2007

Where’d You Get All of This?

Rocket Science: An Interview with producer Effie Brown” By Wilson Morales., 6 August 2007

“Jeffrey Blitz on Rocket Science By Max Evry., 8 August 2007

“Jeffrey Blitz Practices Rocket Science
By Jennifer M. Wood. MovieMaker. 15 January 2008

“The Making of Rocket ScienceRocket Science. HBO Home Video (2008)

Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Coming of age · Drunk scene · Father/son relationship · High school · Master and pupil · No opening credits · Psychoanalysis

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kelsy // Jul 16, 2009 at 6:38 pm

    I kind of felt the same way about this movie. I liked it, I liked several of the moments in the movie, but overall it didn’t engage me.

    And random aside, Anna Kendrick is in the Twililght movie (yeah, I saw it). She humanizes the scenes she’s in and manages to be funny in such a ridiculous movie. I’d like to see her in more stuff.

  • 2 Moviezzz // Jul 17, 2009 at 7:31 am

    “There’s a cello in your house now!”

    I love this film, even more than some Wes Anderson films. It is one of the few movies that I’ve gone back and rewatched from this past decade.

    I wrote this about it not too long ago.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 18, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Kelsy: You know, as much as Twilight and its stars are in the news, I don’t think I’ve seen one frame of the actual movie. From your comments, it doesn’t sound like I need to, but I do hope Anna Kendrick gets more work. Thanks for commenting!

    Jim: Haha. That was a good line. The fact that there was even a cello in the movie was heartening. Blitz is definitely talented. I just thought the storybook approach was ill advised and his producers a little ineffective in helping the fledgling director out. Thanks for that review; it was the reason Rocket Science landed on my rental queue.

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