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Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz (Spellbound) tackles the mysteries of life, love and public speaking in a wry comedy of adolescent angst. Teenager Hal Hefner (Reece Daniel Thompson) inhabits a cosmically ridiculous, often incomprehensible world. His erratic stutter can leave him hopelessly tongue-tied at the worst possible moments, sending him fleeing for his secret refuge—the high school janitor's closet. So it comes as a complete, though not unwelcome, surprise when the debate team's star member, the hyper-articulate beauty Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), approaches Hal to join her team. Mixing humor with compassion, Blitz creates a film about the little insights that can emerge from, and ultimately eclipse, the agonies and disappointments of youth.
 

 Rocket Science

In Rocket Science, I gave Hal Hefner, a bright and deadpan 14-year-old who is the movie’s lead, the precise sort of stutter I grew up with. This choice was not because I wanted to represent my own childhood so perfectly. It’s that I felt my sort of stuttering gave itself to sometimes artful (and sometimes artless), sometimes cunning (and sometimes bland) turns of phrase, and I really wanted Hal’s intelligence to peek through in the subtle and necessary ways that he constructed and reconstructed his sentences. Woody Allen speaks in roundabouts, too, but with Hal Hefner it’s not neurotic prickliness lurking behind that but an internal refusal to say it simply.

Here’s Hal trying to say, “This is public property,” to a bothersome kid:

HAL
This is, this right here is, you know what public property is?

And here’s Hal just trying to say, “No, thanks,” to an offer to join a tedious high school philosophy club:

HAL
I, I, my plate is kind of full.

Some stutterers get caught on a sound and repeat it in staccato blasts, creating a hail of gunfire instead of an actual word. Some stutterers take a bad turn and their faces lock down completely. Some strain to force words but blow air instead, creating a ghostly sort of failure. Some twitch from the pent-up pressure. Some bark. Some live as quietly as they can. As a kid, I was so determined not to stutter, and not to allow myself to be a stutterer of any kind, that my signature move became avoidance. Not silence—I was a big talker—but the constant re-invention of a stream of words as they were flowing forth so that I could avoid hitting a block. I tried not to be too aware of it; self-consciousness made it worse. But I tried not to ignore it completely; unconsciousness set up disaster. So I put this awareness and activity somewhere just out of reach, flitting in a pre-conscious zone where I secretly monitored my speech all the time, plugging in substitute words for tricky ones, rearranging sentences to maximize my chance at success.

Reece Daniel Thompson, who plays Hal, had to learn to stutter like this. I wanted him to understand it on two levels, mechanical and conceptual. For the mechanical end of things, we called in a speech pathologist who, after years spent teaching kids how not to stutter, had one day to reverse engineer the whole thing and teach Reece how to make his mouth tense or rubbery, how to blow air around a sound, how to freeze up on a word. But I also wanted Reece to get the brainy acrobatics that go with stuttering, to let the internal effort take place, too.

Here’s what exists in your head while you’re talking:

Momentary assessments get made: Can I make that hard “P” sound right after a slippery “S”? Would it be better to turn the whole phrase upside down? Should I just stay away from that idea entirely? Can I breathe through it? Get my vocal cords going on an easy sound and continue it through the harder one? Will I need to back up to the beginning and try again, this time speaking faster, maybe sliding through the speech block? I would often tell Reece the magic missing word from a line of dialogue and let him reach and reach again for it, let him contort the sentence to get there.

Late in the movie, Hal is talking with his dad, looking for a hint as to when he’ll discover answers to the big mysteries of life. The first word to struggle after is “rocket,” I told him. The second one, the one you never get to, is “science”:

HAL
It shouldn’t be, because it shouldn’t be. It’s not rocket, rocket, it’s not rocket. But I guess I’m just wondering when it all starts to make sense?

When, indeed.