August 16, 2007


Debate cinema is a surprisingly small genre. You've got 1989's Listen to Me, the Dirty Dancing 2 of the genre (starring Kirk Cameron with a southern drawl). And you've got the little known Thumbsucker, a true gem of a movie that you should rush out and watch tonight.

Comes now Rocket Science, the first feature film by writer/director Jeffrey Blitz who previously made the documentary Spellbound.

When I saw Spellbound, I thought it easily could have been a documentary on high school debate instead of spelling bees. Both competitions feature the same assortment of quirky, intense kids obsessively perfecting some arcane academic skill in a ritualized format. Turns out Blitz was saving his knowledge of high school forensics for Rocket Science.

As a portrayal of high school policy debate, Rocket Science is an amazing work of verisimilitude. The movie opens with a recitation of stock issues, the evidence tubs are back-breakingly familiar and, at one point, the 2AC fails to point out that the NEG's counterplan is not mutually exclusive. (I kinda squealed here.)

As a movie, Rocket Science is a bit of miss. There's not a terribly convincing character arc for the protagonist, a stutterer who gets gets pulled into debate and adolescent love by a fast-talking debate gal. (Said debate gal also made me squeal). And the plot is really just a framework for wackiness.

While said wackiness is admirably executed with superb use of the Violent Femmes, ultimately Rocket Science is, as summarized by the Village Voice reviewer, "another Eagle vs. Little Miss Napoleon Dynamite quirk fest."

What debate cinema really needs is a movie that eschews some of the reality in favor of campy grandiosity. Preferably from the creative team behind Hackers.

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