On its own, “Rocket Science” is a jim-dandy little comedy, wellwritten and acted, with a sharp sense of the ups and downs of youth.
If only I could forget how much this movie borrows from Wes Anderson’s films (“Rushmore” and “Royal Tenenbaums” in particular), I’m sure I would be raving about its originality. But it does feel like Anderson Junior.
We are in suburban New Jersey, home to young Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), who lives with his newly divorced mom and a bizarre, bullying older brother (Vincent Piazza). Hal is a bright kid but a stutterer, an affliction he tries to cure by joining the debate team at Plainsboro.
Along with this unlikely debate-team struggle, Hal experiences the angst of first love, in his puppydog crush on brassy debating champ Ginny (Anna Kendrick). And he seeks out a former debater (Nicholas D’Agosto), a legend in the annals of Plainsboro debating, for mentoring.
Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz cruises along in a confident, effortless groove for the first hour of the movie. The details of life in high school are hilariously exact, such as the recruitment sketch for the debate team that has two students dressed up in a re-enactment of the Lincoln-Douglas debate (“Lincoln’s a chick!” an anonymous heckler calls out from the back).
Home life is also well drawn, as Hal’s world changes when his mother begins dating a very enthusiastic neighbor. The neighbor’s son (Aaron Yoo, from “Disturbia”) seems to have unrequited feelings for Hal.
It’s only in the final third that “Rocket Science” loses some of its comic momentum, as though Blitz realized that the high-school debating world isn’t actually all that colorful a backdrop after all. A strong final sequence restores some of the good will.
Blitz directed the hit documentary “Spellbound,” the one about the kids competing in a national spelling bee. He’s one of those rare filmmakers who can hop from nonfiction to fiction without batting an eye.
The comic timing is impeccable in this film, and he’s good with actors. Newcomer Reece Daniel Thompson, who clearly has one too many names, is a Vancouver, B.C., native with a bright future.
And a final kudo to the music by Eef Barzelay, from the band Clem Snide. It’s a bright score, even if it sounds a little like the films of Wes Anderson.
Reece Daniel Thompson stars in “Rocket Science.”