Maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like every month or so another winsome and quirky coming-of-age comedy hits the screens, almost at the same frequency as action sequels. It's a style of picture dating back even before John Hughes, but the popularity and form of the current deadpan breed can mostly be blamed on Wes Anderson, the grand master of droll whose instant classic Rushmore (1999) is still spawning imitators. The latest clone was a Sundance smash, proving indie audiences crave cinema comfort food just as much as the next guy.
Make no mistake, Rocket Science is a follower, not an innovator, from its gawky but likable teen lead to the faux literary narration to the poppy alternative soundtrack laden with an exhausting supply of Violent Femmes, it proudly wears its scores of clichés like a chest full of combat medals. Yet, while awkward, stuttering teen hero Hal Heffner (Reece Thompson) is no Max Fischer, he's not without his charms, and, though derivative, the movie has just enough heart and smarts to keep moving, so, you know, your mileage may vary.
Moving on from the hit doc Spell Bound, filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz has found an equally dorky backdrop for his first narrative feature; the high-stakes world of high school debate. The queen of this nerdy kingdom is Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a chatterbox powerhouse with the same laser-beam intensity as Election's Tracy Flick; she recruits terminally shy Hal, because she sees hidden talent in him. He's painfully aware of her talents as well, and not just those at the podium, but the ones under her sweater. She awakens all sorts of secret reserves in him.
Unfortunately this love boat hits choppy water, with flirting stops and starts there are clumsy hormonal advances that lead to hurt feelings and a cello flies through a closed window. A climactic "debate" showdown ensues, and Hal recruits Ginny's old flame as his new partner and de facto life coach.
There's a bleakness to the humor, and the fresh-faced actors make every stumble and victory seem like an emotional triumph. Nobody really wins in Rocket Science, which is the messy message buried deep beneath the whimsy and cloying cuteness. (Blitz directs scenes as if he were a expecting a cookie for completing them.) What he gets right is the teen existence, the hyperactive, end-of-day's melodrama where every fleeting look or word can be felt with earth-shattering impact.
Opens Friday, Aug. 24, Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.