Rocket Science is one of those terminally annoying, depressive-yet-coy Sundance faves in which the tale of a mopey teen misfit unfolds behind a hard candy shell of irony. The movie, set in Plainsboro, N.J., is too hip to ask you to feel sorry for Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson), a gawky, floppy-haired high school stutterer. Yet it never explores his psychology or anguish. His stuttering is presented as the behavioral equivalent of a dysfunctional halo — a trait that confers outsider status, and the ”innocence” that goes with it. The director, Jeffrey Blitz, who made the acclaimed documentary Spellbound (and who has discussed growing up as a stutterer himself), doesn’t trust the audience to respond to the situations he creates. He turns everything into a glib indie commercial, from the speech pathologist who tells Hal ”It’s really a shame you’re not hyperactive” to the brainiac Ginny (Anna Kendrick), who speaks in mile-a-minute sentences and pushes him onto the debate team.
Why filter such a personal story through the attitudinal tics of Wes Anderson and Napoleon Dynamite, especially if you’re going to do it with about one-third the skill? Nothing in Rocket Science quite parses. Ginny, the verbal genius, starts out with a crush on Hal (we can see why she might prefer a quiet boy), but then she takes a hostile turn that isn’t remotely explained. And Thompson, who has a winning presence, isn’t asked to show any anger — a glaring omission in a story of adolescent pain. Rocket Science is a movie that never quite spits out what it has to say.