Last week Karina and I watched Rocket Science, a movie that created quite a buzz at the 2007 Sundance Festival.
This little independent movie follows in a long line of films that mine the depths of high school angst, portraying befuddled teenagers attempting to navigate the hallways of life with some semblance of dignity and hope. It could very easily be the Sixteen Candles or Breakfast Club or Say Anything of the early 2000s.
Reece Thompson plays the protagonist, Hal Hefner, a high school freshman with a stuttering problem. The movie wrenches your heart as you watch Hal attempt to order food in the school cafeteria; you feel deeply embarrassed for Hal as he is forced to stand in front of the entire school and answer questions about U.S. history. Added to Hal's issues are a bully of a brother and divorcing parents, and you have the quintessential teenager drowning in a confusing life.
Hal's fortunes might just change, however, when Ginny Ryerson, the beautiful senior captain of the school's speech and debate club (played with sheer genius by Anna Kendrick) approaches him about becoming her debate partner. She claims to have the ability to discover talent in out-of-the-way places, and believes that Hal could help her finally win the state debate championship. As Hal enters into this world, he (expectedly) falls hard for Ginny, and determines to join her as a debater, just to remain close to her.
However, Ginny soon is playing hard-to-get; Hal has a hard time even getting together with Ginny to research and prepare for their upcoming competitions. And eventually suspicion sets in that just perhaps Ginny isn't being perfectly honest in her intentions - did she string Hal along because she wants their team to actually lose?
Before I get to the plot spoiler and begin to draw some conclusions, let me also mention that along the way the story is filled will all sorts of memorable characters - the special needs educator who tells Hal "too bad you don't have autism - then I could really help you!"; the young boy who lives across the street from Ginny and secretly watches her out his window (not to mention his parents, who play music as marriage therapy); Hal's Chinese friend whose father begins to date Hal's mother. . .every character brings in both comedic relief and added angst to Hal's life.
But now. . .
++++++++++++Plot Spoiler Alert+++++++++++++++++++
Here's where all this is so important: At the end of every 80s coming-of-age story, the girl got the guy. Or the guy got the girl. The nerds won respect (and the hot chicks). The computer geek got the cheerleader (because she recognized that depth is more important than wavy hair). Ferris Beuller ended up back home with his loving parents and sister. Friends made up for their disagreements. Everyone ended up hopeful, if not happy. In other words, those stories ended up with redemption. Yes, school and teenageism were shown to be dangerous, painful, full of disaster and competition. Parents weren't always loving, hot girls were out of reach. . .but they all ended up with some sense of things being better, of life turning out for the good, of the loser finally finding victory.
Not so in Rocket Science. Hal does not, in fact, win Ginny's heart. Ginny ends up being every bit as devious as expected. And the final debate ends not with a Rocky-style victory; not even a loss with dignity, but a simple disqualification. Hal doesn't get the girl. He doesn't get the trophy. His parents are aloof as ever. His stutter never goes away. The whole movie simply fades away with a half-hearted conversation between Hal and his father. His only victory is that he finally gets the pizza he always wanted.
Which, to me, tells us a lot about the existential position of society today. 20, 30 years ago, there was still hope that everything would be better. The 80s and 90s were times of great hope, despite the threat of nuclear war and the onslaught of grunge. People still held onto the Disney Model of Life, in which, eventually, the dragon is slain and the prince marries the princess and they live happily ever after. We were still living with echoes of the 1950s, of Mayberry and Happy Days. The American Dream was still alive and well. Or so our movies would lead us to believe.
Rocket Science walks the same path, yet comes out at a completely different place. The PostModern Place, if you will, in which nothing really has any meaning. There are no large stories that give us hope and meaning. Most people don't win the lottery. Nerds don't get the cheerleader. Kids with disabilities never do "finally show 'em all!" Life just is what it is. It has its funny moments, it has its painful moments. Parents leave and don't come back. People play you and then dump you and walk away without a care. Hearts are broken, and never really recover. And that's just how it all goes - eventually you'll become your parents and probably divorce and mess up your kids just the same as they messed you up.
So here's the thing - I think this movie is important. Yes, I think the message is wrong - in fact, I know it's wrong, because I know that there is an ultimate Redemption to all of this; I know that these moments all do have meaning, because there is a God who hurts alongside of us, who gives us meaning in our days. But I think the movie is important because it reveals the heart of those who walk next to us in our world. In fact, if I was leading a 2-day seminar on youth culture, I think I'd show Pretty in Pink and then Rocket Science, and then lead a discussion on exactly what messages we're being sold. And then I'd move into a discussion on the psyche of American youth in the year 2008.
I think Rocket Science is a mirror on our youth, and is thus important as a tool to get inside that culture and understand what it's thinking. Because they've given up hope, they've given up on the dream that all will someday be better. They believe that, unless you win American Idol, life is pretty meaningless and pointless, something to be endured, rather than embraced.
And, I think if we understand that, then we're a whole lot closer to reaching them where they are at, and opening up the world that is so much better just outside the door.