-By Bruce Feld

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It is a dark and desolate world, worse than a Russian gulag, for the teenage Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson). His parents are divorcing, his stuttering is worse than ever, and his obnoxious brother Earl (Vincent Piazza) is turning into an obsessive thief. Then, out of the blue, hottie Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick) asks him to be her partner on the Plainsboro High debate team, one of the best in New Jersey. A very poised young woman from a prosperous family, Ginny is perfectly well aware of her superiority to the socially pathetic Hefner, but insists that under her tutelage he will emerge into one of the school's most accomplished debaters. Why would she ask him to join the team if she didn't have complete confidence in his potential? Why, indeed!

Director Jeffrey Blitz's script for Rocket Science is a dead-on revelation of what high school is really like, and it makes most forays into this genre look as lightweight as cotton candy. With the help of casting director Matthew Lessall, the actors actually look like high-school students, teachers and personnel--not budding leading men and ingénues. The food in the cafeteria offers an unappetizing range of possibilities from dry pizza to slightly burnt fish. The lighting in the hallway gives every passageway a murky basement look.

Because of his terribly halting speech, Hefner is one of the three or four loneliest boys in school. He is not so much hated as ignored, acknowledged only by the occasional insult. One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when a janitor discovers him hiding in a cleaning-supply room and decides after a moment's hesitation to leave him there. Not a word is spoken. Why bother?

And Ginny obviously has more up her sleeve than lending a hand to a miserable pariah. Gradually, we learn what her scheme for Hal is, although because she speaks at the rate of several hundred words per minute, she is not always easy to comprehend. Her powers of manipulation suggest a combination of Martha Stewart and Joseph Stalin. She is among the rarest of rare creations in the annals of high-school beauties, a character who is not only intellectually above the heads of her contemporaries, but almost everyone else as well. A cold, self-worshiping creature with enormous powers of analysis, she offers everything a hormone-heavy boy could desire except a sense of humor.

When she finally dumps Hal, he responds by throwing a musical instrument through the window of her parents' house--and this bizarre gesture in turn ultimately leads to Hal teaming up with great debater Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D'Agosto) in a bold effort at retribution. There is a good deal of anxiety and frustration in the final act. Audiences hoping for a miracle comeback of our plucky little hero should consider whether the cold cynicism that pervades this hellish world could ever be relieved by anything resembling happiness.

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