Rocket Science

HBO Films (Producer), and Blitz, Jeffrey (Director), (2007). USA: Picturehouse Entertainment.

The unfortunately named Hal Hefner who has a debilitating stutter, is recruited for the debate team by Ginny, an aggressive champion whose former partner had a breakdown at the State Championships the year before. This is the insane world of traditional policy debate, where not only bins full of evidence and reams of analysis are necessary, but lightening-fast delivery virtually unintelligible to the uninitiated is also required. Ginny’s motives are unclear, perhaps even to her, but she works with Hal on his stutter, as does a school therapist, and she drills him in research and argumentation skills. At the same time, Hal’s parents’ marriage disintegrates, causing his already unstable older brother to increase his weird kleptomania . Soon, Mom has a new boyfriend, a Korean judge, who has a son also gradually drawn in to debate. Gradually, Hal improves, but he is still far from ready for major competition, and at a certain point, Ginny dumps him, transferring to a neighboring private school. Hal finds his sense of self-assertion and goes into the city to find and partner up with Ginny’s legendary drop-out genius former partner. Do they practice long hours? Does the pressure mount as the competition date draws nearer? Will there be an inevitable showdown with the female betrayer? Well, not exactly—it’s an indy movie; things don’t go quite as we might expect.

Reader’s Annotation
Is a spot on a championship debate squad the best cure for the debilitating stutter that plagues Hal Hefner? That’s the contention of Ginny, whose last partner did a mental walkabout during the state championships the year before. But what does she see in Hal, and can he live up to her expectations?

The film has good intentions—to use competitive debate and parental relationships as a way of looking at the difficulties of ‘finding a voice’ and understanding the complexities of love. These things, Hal says, shouldn’t be Rocket Science. Anyone who has been involved with high school debate can attest that Blitz gets some things perfectly right—the drab hallways; the cheap suits; Ginny’s insanely competitive personality--but the film is pretty much a mess. A narrative voice-over is often an admission on the part of the film-maker that things aren’t making sense, and that certainly holds true here. There just isn’t room in one film for a berserk kleptomaniac brother, a philosophizing debate drop out, an Edward Hopper-inspired interlude with depressed dad in a run-down Jersey shore resort, and the hero, in a John Cusack moment, throwing a cello through the window of his former debate partner love object’s house. After re-watching the end, I still can’t decide whether Ginny and Ben’s behavior is ambiguous or just incoherent, but I lean toward the latter.

About the author
The film is very autobiographical, as Blitz, who also directed Spellbound, the documentary on spelling bees, does suffer from a serious stutter, and did attempt to improve it through high school debate participation.

YA film

Curriculum Ties
Excerpts-speech and debate

Booktalking Ideas
Use Youtube of real champion policy debaters—is this public speaking?
The ambitious high school student type
Getting used to Mom’s new boyfriend

Reading Level/Interest Age

Challenge Issues
Sexual language and content.
Rated R, but the director has complained that the main objectionable content is the ancient Indian art used to illustrate an edition of the Kama Sutra featured in the film.
Be knowledgeable about the book and prepared to discuss it calmly. Provide complaint form per board policy;

Why Included?
Looking for Debate movies

Selection Tools
Sundance Film Award Nominations

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