Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rocket Science and others: films on debate and on common school-related topics


One of the most important themes in my own writings is the importance of objectivity in public debate, and of making it easier for people to see opposing viewpoints and both sides of every issue. Before signing that petition or sending that form email letter to one’s representative, one should be aware of the possible unintended consequences of some proposal that meets the needs of one group. Of course, most people’s experience with political participation is quite partisan, and goes through advocacy organizations or unions that represent them and that speak for them.

There have been two recent movies about political debate in high school. Now debate is itself a specific subject, rather like journalism, usually handled by the English department, and it becomes a specific extracurricular activity, with school debate tournaments up to the state level. In the movies, the view concerns mainly the mechanics of debate, and, as a competitive institution, that it can be a way of making the general public aware of both sides of any issue. At the same time, it does not go into the substance of the issues themselves.

The recent Rocket Science (brief theatrical distribution by Time Warner New Line’s Picture House, but an HBO film and probably scheduled for showing on HBO soon), written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz, deals with a stuttering boy Hal Hefner (Canadian actor Reece Thompson) whose girl friend Ginny (Anna Kendrick) encourages him to join the debate team at his New Jersey high school. The movie itself stutters along, with clever soundtrack and quick takes of the shy boy’s meanderings through the neighborhood and school halls (even the janitor’s closet); eventually he teams up with a charismatic young man Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto), who had suddenly gone silent at the same time that Hal’s home was breaking up. The movie story starts with an artificial connection between the two events, a plot layering that does not quite work. Along the way, it shows some gritty on location views of the Trenton, NJ area, including the Deleware River bridge (crossing to PA) that reads “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”

The boy is asked to debate the pro position for the idea that the government should support abstinence-only education. He never gets the words out of his mouth, maybe a sign that such a position is difficult to defend (using public money for social coercion). The girl rattles off the con arguments, and although they sound fine linguistically and didactically, they are actually rather politically correct and trite. Therefore, despite using the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a tool to help Hal talk, the movie never gets into the issue. But maybe it didn’t want to.

The film will of course be compared to Thumbsucker (2005, Sony Pictures Classics, directed by Mile Mills, based on the novel by Walter Kirn) in which another appealing youngster Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), with parents played by Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio (Benjamin Bratt is the mother’s external boyfriend). Here, Justin “hides” a secret narcissistic habit of sucking his thumb, and after an attempt by the dentist (Keanu Reeves) to treat him with hypnosis, the school will diagnose him with ADD and get him on ritalin, whereupon he becomes an articulate “genius” in the debates. The movie, like the more recent one, got into the mechanics of the debate and presented some issues, but has a lot more story around it and is much more of a “movie,” filmed in full 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio.

There have been a few other sequences of films about the same scholastic process. For example, spelling bees have given us Akeelah and the Bee (2006, Lions Gate, dir. Doug Atchison); Bee Season (2005, Fox Searchlight, dir. Scott McGhee), and Spellbound (2002, ThinkFilm, dir. Jeffrey Blitz, like “Rocket Science" above), and a more distantly related documentary about crossword puzzles, Wordplay (2006, IFC/The Weinstein Company, dir. Paul Creadon).

Links for my earlier reviews: Rocket Science Akeelah

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