The world could probably live without another quirky high-school comedy about a misfit's coming of age; the halls in Rocket Science echo with the sounds of Thumbsucker, Election, Rushmore, and countless other indies. Yet the film carves out a place for itself anyway, because it's so determined to undercut expectations and access the feelings of a stuttering boy who can't express them on his own. Writer-director Jeffrey Blitz, who made the fine documentary Spellbound, seems uniquely attuned to kids who are bright yet woefully underdeveloped; few 12-year-olds know how to spell "logorrhea," but the ones who can't have certain social advantages over the nervous, home-schooled loners who can. In Rocket Science, Blitz finds a similar sort of inspiration in the story of a verbally stunted teenager who tries to overcome his affliction by joining the Debate Club, the most hyper-verbal of after-school activities. It's a high-concept idea that Blitz executes without the usual payoffs.
Joining the Debate Club can teach a student many important things—how to think logically, how to construct and dissect an argument, how to speak in a public forum—but its chief byproduct is the confidence that comes from a well-supported idea. (Even for those who don't believe in that idea, which is sometimes the case.) As the film opens, Reece Thompson has no reason to feel confident: His mother, recently separated, has embarked on an awkward affair with a classmate's father; his obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac brother (Vincent Piazza) abuses him endlessly; and his thoughts are walled up by a crippling stammer. When fast-talking Debate Club queen Anna Kendrick—a type-A personality along the lines of Reese Witherspoon in Election—recruits him to the team, Thompson's suspicions are trumped by helpless infatuation, and he labors toward semi-lucidity.
Thompson's efforts to overcome his stammer lead to many hilariously awkward missteps, like when he tries to sing his sentences (à la Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda) or consults a special-needs instructor who can work wonders with hyperactive kids, but doesn't know what to do with him. Yet Rocket Science doesn't go too far into Todd Solondz-style mockery, either; though painful to witness at times, Thompson's determination to face his fears—not just of speaking, but of girls, too—is heartbreakingly noble and courageous. Though Blitz surrounds him with too-cute peripheral oddballs, such as a married couple that practices Violent Femmes' "Blister In The Sun" as a classical duet and explores the Kama Sutra page by page, Thompson's problems always seem achingly real. They aren't overcome easily, but it's the effort that counts.