There aren’t many scenes of violence involving cellos in the movies. Scenes of violence tend to involve more obvious weapons. That’s why so few of them ring true for us. I remember reading an interview with Robert Towne where he talked about wanting to include a scene in a movie where a man fended off an intruder with a rocking chair. No-one let him, of course. But I liked the idea of using a rocking chair as a weapon. It felt real because it was unexpected. The cello scene in Rocket Science has the same feel. It sums up something: how bizarre life is. A 15-year old boy throws a cello at a girl’s house because she broke his heart. He wants to get even. If the boy had thrown a brick it wouldn’t have the same impact.
Rocket Science is a coming of age story made by a man who loves Hal Ashby movies. That means that it will be quirky but that that quirkiness won’t feel forced. “Quirky” is a bad word to use when discussing movies because in connotes falseness (maybe I ought not to use it). But it’s such a small and prickly word that it fits the movie’s hero well (so maybe I should). Hal Hefner (played by Reece Thompson) is a boy with speech problems, both literal and figurative – he has a stutter but he wants to join the debate club. There is a girl he likes (Anna Kendrick) who excels at rhetoric. Hal thinks he has a chance because she tells him so. She persuades him to take a risk.
Reece Thompson is a great screen nerd because we sense his frustration at his lowly social position. Even when he’s being bullied by his older brother, he’s resilient, not pliant. This isn’t to say he’s the stereotypical “mortified” teenager either. He isn’t aghast or annoyed at the world. He just looks like he’s waiting for better things to come along, with the knowledge they will, and the patience to trust. If that makes it sound like he’s above life’s petty embarrassments, that’s misleading too. He’d be awfully dull to watch if he didn’t make a mess of things half the time. And Rocket Science doesn’t let him off. This isn’t Ferris Bueller. When Hal falls in love he’s spaghetti-fied (like the rest of us). Love doesn’t let you get away with being aloof.
Hal’s brother in the movie is like a John Hughes older brother, only loveable. As played by Vincent Piazza he’s a dead-ringer for Matt Dillon, but seemingly at a loss as to how to use that fact to get a girl. When Hal finds love, his brother hates him for it. Its one of the most winning things in the movie to see fraternal jealousy laid so bare. Earl Hefner is the kind of bully who makes his victims feel kind of sorry for him. He is a potty-mouth and a thief, but he’s about as tough as a carton of eggs. Piazza does something with the character that I’m not even sure good writing can account for, he’s got this unhinged way about him, but you never doubt that that’s what Earl would do.
Is the girl worth the enmity she creates between the Hefner brothers? Not as she is perhaps, but the actress who plays her is someone to watch. Anna Kendrick takes a bitch and makes you see there’s more to her, but not necessarily more good. There’s a great scene where she asks Hal if he ever feels like burning down the world, and Hal says “all the time”, and she thinks on it – but says nothing. This girl isn’t solipsistic; she’s just that much smarter than everyone else.
The thing about the cello scene isn’t that no-one’s done it before. Originality is pointless in a movie if it only exists to flatter itself. For something unexpected to feel right in hindsight, it has to come from somewhere honest. When Hal is done throwing the cello, he’s got tears in his eyes (though it’s still ok to laugh at him). Rocket Science is made by people who love guys like Hal – guys who live boldly at odd moments, taking risks and making scenes.