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'Rocket Science' Prescription: The Talking Cure

Director Jeffrey Blitz landed an Oscar nomination for his first movie, Spellbound — a documentary about a national spelling bee. He's still dealing with adolescents and school contests in his first fiction film — a comedy called Rocket Science.

The adolescent in question is 14-year-old Hal, a mild-looking fellow who talks like a car with a balky transmission; his stutter, and the bullying of his macho older brother — who keeps telling him to set an agenda for success — have Hal feeling pretty isolated and insecure.

So he's surprised when Ginny, a pretty girl from the school's debate team, sits next to him on his bus ride home and tells him that she is "recruiting — ferreting out the debating talent from the masses."

"That's you," she says, deadpan. "I ferreted you."

It's an unconventional come-on, but since no one has ever come on to Hal conventionally, either, it works. He starts helping Ginny with research, joins the debate club as her partner, and soon — even before he gets to the public-speaking part — confides to his brother Earl that he's in way over his head.

Now, you know from the start where most Hollywood pictures would take a story about a stutterer who joins the debate team to get the girl. But writer-director Jeffrey Blitz is an outsider to Hollywood, and he's going someplace else — into quirky, indie-flick, social satire, which is not perhaps an altogether unfamiliar place these days.

In fact, there have been enough offbeat coming-of-age comedies in just the last couple of years — The Squid and the Whale, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine — that it's now possible to say that Rocket Science is unconventional in mostly conventional ways.

Still, between Blitz, who proves a clever writer and director, and his young leading man — Reece Thompson, who puts a lot of character behind that stutter — the smarts and charm of Rocket Science simply aren't open to debate.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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