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It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think director-writer Jeffrey Blitz suffers from some kind of verbal fixation. His 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound” focused on the National Spelling Bee competition and in “Rocket Science,” his feature film debut out Friday, his protagonist is Hal Hefner, an endearingly troubled teenager with a stutter who joins the high school debate team.
But for Blitz, such wordplay is a tool for exploring depths of quirky character development. While “Spellbound” presented a veritable quilt of American diversity, “Rocket Science” tells a smaller, more intimate journey toward self-empowerment. The genesis of the latter was in Blitz’s experiences on the road making his hit documentary.
“We would go to meet a kid and before we met him or her, I would think, ‘What if this kid ends up being just an amazing lover of words, wouldn’t that be great?’ And then you’d get there and the kid wouldn’t be anything like that at all,” he recalls. “So I was left with all these ideas for characters that never came true but that I felt would be really compelling.”
Blitz’s own life story factored in, too. Set in the small town of Plainsboro, N.J., “Rocket Science” follows Hal as he is coaxed by debate alpha girl and crush, Ginny, into joining the school team. Blitz, a New Jersey native himself, similarly joined the debate team in spite of his own stutter. And to great success: By his senior year of high school he had overcome his disability, going on to win a N.J. state championship in college and numerous speech contests. Hal, sadly, does not enjoy a similar fate.
“I just feel like that movie of the kid who wins the debate and gets the girl has been done so many times,” explains Blitz. “It’s just much more interesting to have a story that follows its own organic path, than a story that feels like it needs to hew closely to the Hollywood formula. It’s not like I set out to make a story about a loser who stays a loser.”
As seen through Blitz’s sympathetic gaze, Hal and his supporting cast of misfits (including his OCD bully brother and voyeuristic young neighbor friend) expose the humor inherent in their rather steep growing pains. And if the film has any lesson at all — a pedantic necessity the director prefers to forgo — it is that succeeding at life need not require a trophy.
Indeed, Blitz himself is leaving behind the theme of childhood competition in his next project, a documentary on the lottery. “I think it’s time for me to graduate from high school,” he smiles.