The next big thing

Last year, “Little Miss Sunshine” rocked Sundance. Abigail Breslin, as young Olive, quickly became everyone’s adorable little sweetheart and the dynamo cast was lauded by almost every major publication. So this year at Sundance, the buzzing question was “What will be the next ‘Little Miss Sunshine?'”

I had to apologize when I shoved my mini recorder into Reece Thompson’s (“The Sandlot 2”, “SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2”) face. “Sorry about that,” I said, to which he responded in jest – “No, don’t worry about it. I was in gay porn so nothing really affects me.”

Thompson is not the next “Little Miss.” But the movie he stars in, “Rocket Science,” might be.

“Rocket Science” is Director Jeffrey Blitz’s (“Spellbound”) autobiographically inspired account of the high school experience. Thompson’s character, Hal Hefner, is a small, shy and stuttering underclassman at Plainsboro High. Every day is painful for Hal as he navigates through classes, the lunchroom and the hallway, unable to express his intelligence, wit or even his desire for a slice of pizza. As Thompson explained, “Hal is kind of a physical embodiment of that shy quality that everyone has – that feeling of walking through the cafeteria and feeling like everyone is staring at you. That’s him every day, in every moment.”

And Hal’s family offers little help. His parents have just split after his father walked out during a screaming match, and Hal’s mother finds a Korean boyfriend with whom, to Hal’s dismay, she has very loud, headboard slamming, heavy panting, middle-aged sex. Hal’s brother, Earl, played by newcomer Vincent Piazza, is a mildly threatening, sweaty teenager who happens to also be an obsessive-compulsive thief.

Heading home on the bus one day, smart and pretty policy debate star Ginny Ryerson, played by Anna Kendrick (“Camp”), switches seats with Earl to speak with Hal. Ginny’s legendary debate partner, Ben Wekselbaum, played by Nicholas D’Agosto (“Election”), has just dropped out of high school after a disastrous debate tournament in which his voice suddenly disappeared. In need of a new partner, Ginny convinces Hal that he has potential to be a stellar debater, and he falls smitten with her beauty and verbal talent. He soon joins the debate team as Ginny’s partner and the pair begins strenuous research in the afternoons at Ginny’s house. But when Ginny stops calling Hal to practice, the film takes a poignant twist.

“Rocket Science” entertains the concept of human limitations, obstacles and pretending to be someone you aren’t. “The fights you fight today will be the fights you fight for the rest of your life,” explains Hal’s father, Doyle, played by Denis O’Hare (“Garden State”). Hal is a hero to anyone who has ever felt marginalized, lonely or afraid. Though he never wins the debates, his struggle with his limitations is inspiring. He’s a hero to everyone and anyone.

Thompson’s performance is delightful. Though a confident, articulate, argyle sweater-wearing young man in person, he has mastered Hal’s demure yet frustrated persona. His stuttering is also quite impressive. Thompson spent time with a speech pathologist to get the perfect speech impediment – one similar to what Blitz grew up with. In fact, the stutter came so naturally that when it was time to leave the set, Thompson had trouble speaking normally.

While “Rocket Science” is a drama, it is also full of comedic moments – including vandalism with a cello, an angry shower scene and various quips that make it past Hal’s stutter. “I try to work comedy into everything. You know, life is funny, so whenever I do something serious, I always try to work some comedy into it, whether it’s physical, emotional or whatever,” Thompson said.

Inevitably, Thompson shines as the star of “Rocket Science” but the ensemble is truly wonderful – Piazza, Kendrick, D’Agosto and newcomer Aaron Yoo, who plays Heston, Mrs. Hefner’s boyfriend’s son, work wonderfully together. Piazza explained that, “the stakes were high and everyone had a very strong voice.”

Kendick and D’Agosto were particularly notable in their mock debating skills. Using a debating technique called “spreading,” they made a million words per second speeches, condensing complex arguments into brief periods of time. To perform this craft, they dedicated time to working with a debate coach and attending actual high school and college debates. “I was absolutely shocked by this technique,” said Kendrick.

Thompson described filming as “basically a chance for us to all get together and act like idiots – which is what we’re really good at.” And it’s true- when they sit down for an interview together they can’t help but be hilarious. Kendrick joked, “I ran out of milk for my Cheerios so I started using whiskey – it’s not that bad!” and both Piazza and D’Agosto joined in discussing their fictional alcoholic exploits. It’s immediately obvious that they love to be together, which certainly shows on the screen.

Jeffrey Blitz left Sundance with a Directing Award for “Rocket Science” and though there was a ton of “buzz” going around, it’s too early to tell how the film will fare. Rumors have it that “Rocket Science” will hit theaters late spring or early summer.

“Little Miss Sunshine” has grossed over $60 million and the all-star cast is hard to match, but “Rocket Science” is tremendously loveable, fun and touching, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

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