Rocket Science: charming but does it pass the fundamental story test?

by on June 29, 2010

in Film analysis, Story structure

Rocket Science movie Anna Kendrick Reece Thompson School Bus

The Herald raved about this indie charmer and it is fabulous in parts. But ultimately it didn’t satisfy my own personal definition of a good story.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sandra Hall gave Rocket Science, the first feature by Spellbound creator, Jeffrey Blitz, 4 stars and urged readers to race out and catch what would almost certainly be a very brief run. I did and I’m glad I did.

The characterisations in the film are absolutely extraordinary. There is the weedy, stuttering but internally eloquent protagonist, Hal Hefner; the Machiavellian but weirdly appealing brother, Earl; the reluctant school speech therapist who would have preferred Hal was hyperactive; the couple who play Violent Femmes on piano and cello as a prelude to revisiting their favourite chapters of the Kama Sutra, and, best of all, Ginny Ryerson, played by Anna (Up in the Air) Kendrick as surely the world’s first femme fatale high school debater.

The film is full of wonderful whacky moments that tell us that Blitz is a writer of exceptional talent. The cute meet between Hal and the very direct Ginny on the school bus is sexually charged, intellectually engaging, funny and categorically fulfils its role as the film’s inciting incident. With the little tug of her jeans as she reaches her front door, you know that Hal is hooked – and so are we.

I loved the scene where Hal drinks heavily while keeping vigil in the house opposite Ginny’s as the 12 year old son of the Kama Sutra cellist and Hal’s (temporary) step brother play cowboys and Indians behind him.

And Hal debating to the strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a means of overcoming his speech defect was a moment of comic genius.

The film has lots and lots of good moments. Unfortunately, in the end, the moments don’t amount to a whole lot and it doesn’t pass my own personal definition of good story. Which is? That I’m more interested after 90 mins than I was after 30.

After the film’s faltering first 5 minutes – that is a further reminder of the dangers of voiceover – I fell absolutely in love with the film during the early interactions between Hal and Ginny and I couldn’t comprehend why it had taken 3 years to reach these shores after winning the Directing prize at Sundance in 2007.

But as the film progresses, the mystery is explained. While the combination of exceptional characterisations, quality scene writing, and great acting meant I was never in danger of leaving before the credits, there is no question my interest declined as soon as Ginny no longer remains centre stage (for reasons I’ll leave unsaid in case you want to see the film for yourself).

Why do I lose interest? For some really fundamental story reasons.

The writer, having established a throughline at the end of the first act and having created a great sense of anticipation about where he’s going to take these two wonderful characters, pulls the narrative rug out from under us. You thought that was what the story was about? You’re wrong. That’s not the goal. This is the goal. It’s unusual and generally unwise to change narrative horses in the middle of Act 2. It’s plain crazy when you swap Makybe Diva for a fairground pony.

As unsatisfying as Hal’s external journey turns out to be, it’s the failure to take him – or us – anywhere emotionally that is my major criticism. It is a pet hate of mine when a character just keeps hitting the same emotional note and Hal stays way too long in the same place. True, he does end the end of the film less introverted than when he began, but it would be hard to argue that in the process he’s tapped into his higher self. He’s no less flawed. Just louder and, frankly, meaner.

And what’s its premise? I’m not sure. For a film about debating, it’s not clear to me what Blitz was trying to say.

My wife really liked this film. She doesn’t have the same emotional expectations of movies that I do – though she does possess enormous personal warmth, I hasten to add. And many of those who have seen the film hold it dear. Unfortunately, not many people have experienced its pleasures.

In the States, the film took just $700k on a budget of $6m. That would be a disappointing return even in Australia. And it’s a shame. Not financially. But because more people didn’t get to share in the wonderful writing talents of Jeffrey Blitz.

Many of those that love the film will like it precisely because it’s different and would argue that imposing a traditional narrative structure on it would have killed would makes it special. Perhaps. Perhaps not. A little narrative craft didn’t seem to hurt the similarly charming Juno, Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine.

What I do know is that it’s not easy to make a film more interesting after 90 mins than it is after 30. It’s one of the great and peculiar challenges of writing features. How do you not just maintain an audience’s interest but actually ramp it up and deliver an emotional punch after an hour and a half? With structure, that’s how.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz Doran June 30, 2010 at 11:08 am

I agree completely

I also rushed out to see this film and had the same moments of exhilaration and connection and laughter – but in the end was left unsatisfied.

SUCH great characters and they were really left to wander around a bit hopelessly. And what about the knock on the door during what should’ve been a big climactic scene (without spoilers) during the debating competition?

That wasn’t being original – that was just bad storytelling.

Shame – because I agree so much to like otherwise.

Mark Harmon June 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Yes I also agree. In the last quarter it seemed to put on the breaks. For me it was like the message of the film was – there is no resolution except to give up and move on. That may be what happens in real life at times but I think for the audience its like having someone say that they love you but then they suddenly loose interest. Understandably, you feel like you’ve been lead on and feel unsatisfied.

In an interview with the director he says the script drew on his own experiences of being a stutterer, which, no doubt, is where some of the great writing came from. But he also says “For myself, I don’t need to see a stutterer succeed in a movie as much as I want to see a stutterer experience life as I know it to be. Realism is the more important goal, I think.”

So it may be that his experiences as a stutterer gave him great material for his writing but also limited the story? By insisting on realism he didn’t seem to allow himself to find a more emotionally satisfying ending???

Allen June 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Yes, he’s overlooked the whole point of storytelling. It’s actually not about the experience at all – it’s about how the character is altered by that experience. What did they learn? How were they transformed in terms to which we can all relate? That’s what gives a story emotional power and universal appeal.

And in terms of realism, the Sydney Pollak character, George, in Tootsie sums it perfectly after Michael (Dustin Hoffman) says, “But that really happened!”
“Who gives a shit?”, replies George. “Who wants to pay twenty bucks to live next door to chemical waste. They can see that in New Jersey!”

In movies, realism is entirely over-rated.

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