Social Anxiety in Movies: Rocket Science

Social Anxietyin Movies

Rocket Science is about Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson), a 15-year-old high school student in suburban New Jersey, who suffers from a severe stutter. It prevents him from speaking in school and making friends. Hal is surprised when a girl at school invites him to join the debate team.

Rocket Science [2007]

  • Directed by: Jeffrey Blitz
  • Written by: Jeffrey Blitz
  • Starring: Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick, Nicholas D’Agosto, Vincent Piazza, and Aaron Yoo
  • Read: Script
  • Watch: Online or DVD

Trailer:

The character of Hal is shy and introverted, but is his stutter a result of social anxiety, or is social anxiety a result of his stutter? Are the two disorders related at all? Let’s take a look at the film to find out.

Psychoanalysis:

The film opens on Ben (Nicholas D’Agosto), a high school debate star who speed-speaks a mile-a-minute.

NARRATOR

To anyone who ever heard Ben debate, there was one thing that was undeniable: he had a voice. Hal Hefner had hardly a voice at all.

In school, a teacher asks the class a question, and Hal writes down the correct answer,  but he is afraid to raise his hand to answer.

Like Hal, I never raised my hand in school, even if I knew the answer to the question. Hal is afraid to speak because of his stutter, whereas I was afraid to speak because of social anxiety.

Hal tries to order pizza at the cafeteria, but he stutters so much, he is unable to get the words out, so he is forced to settle for fish.

I haven’t been “unable” to order food like that, but if I got the wrong food, I would be afraid to tell them and return it for what I wanted. Or if I wanted a special order off the menu, I would be afraid to ask for it.

Mr. Lewinsky, a psychologist at the school, tries to help Hal’s stutter with breathing exercises and tells him to try whispering.

MR. LEWINSKY

It’s really a shame that you’re not hyperactive, because that I know well. And that I can work miracles with…hyperactivity.

Mr. Lewinsky’s tips don’t really work for Hal, but at least he’s trying. In elementary school and high school, I never had a counselor or teacher try to help me with my social anxiety. I wish someone had. I feel like most of my teachers either didn’t realize how bad my social anxiety actually was, or they were too afraid to intervene, thinking it would upset me. Perhaps it would have upset me at the time, but it would have been worth it in the long run to start treating my social anxiety back then.

rocketsciencepic

Hal’s only friends are his older kleptomaniac brother and his mother’s new Korean boyfriend’s son. The three of them are social misfits, essentially forced to hang out together because no one else will hang out with them.

I could relate, as most of my “friends” in school were “misfits” that the “popular” kids rejected. I put those terms in quotes because that’s the way I viewed them at the time, but looking back, I should have been more grateful for the friends I had, rather than wish to be accepted by everyone.

Ginny (Anna Kendrick), a star of the debate team, says she sees great potential in Hal and encourages him to join the team.

GINNY

…although my argumentative skills were at the fetal stage, she sensed, somehow she intuited my potential, and she invited me on the team. So now here I am two years later, doing the same thing with you…recruiting, ferreting out the debating talent from the masses. That’s you. I’ve ferreted you.

HAL

You mean…you mean public speaking? Like, speaking…in public? No, I don’t think that’s…that’s not…that’s not very…

GINNY

The best debaters are the ones with something to prove… I, trying to rise above the fiasco of last year’s States, and you trying to prove to the world that you’re not as retarded as you sometimes sound.

Hal finds it odd that Ginny would think he’d make a great debater, since he struggles so much with stuttering, but he is smitten with her, so he agrees to give it a try.

Because of my social anxiety, I was terrified of private speaking, let alone public speaking. I never would have dreamed of joining the debate team when I was in high school. The closest thing to that was when I was required to do a presentation in front of the class. I would get extremely nervous before, and I’d be just as nervous during. I wasn’t a very eloquent or charismatic speaker, but I’d get through it.

NARRATOR

Resolved that Hal Hefner should really stop letting the world tell him what’s possible and try and figure it out for himself.

Hal’s first debate team practice is a disaster. He gets so nervous that he can’t stop thinking anxious thoughts in his head, and he is unable to speak at all. He knows what he wants to say but just can’t bring himself to say it.

HAL

Uh, the…

NARRATOR

Hal Hefner visualized himself in that moment as the kind of kid who can state, “The plans are not mutually exclusive,” whenever he wants to say so.

HAL (in his head)

The plans are not mutually exclusive.

HAL (out loud)

The plans are not…no, they are…

GINNY

They are not mutually exclusive. I’ll be handling Hal Hefner’s cross-ex and rebuttal until the first actual debate tournament against other actual schools. Until then, he will be my silent partner. Hal Hefner, sit down.

I’ve had the same problem of being able to think and speak clearly in my head, but being unable to speak as clearly out loud. And just as Ginny does for Hal, other people would see that I’m nervous and shy, so they’d try to help by speaking for me. Their “help” would save me in the moment, but it wound up hurting me in the long run. It would have served me better to fight my way through the discomfort and learn to speak for myself.

After Hal’s fiasco at practice, he is embarrassed and runs away to hide in a closet. Ginny goes in to comfort him.

GINNY

That was your first try—your first of many. And I don’t even think anybody really noticed. It really…it wasn’t that big a…

Ginny’s advice is right on. Just as people with speech impediments think that their stutter sounds worse than it is, people with social anxiety think we look and speak worse than we actually do.

rocket-science (1)

In the closet, Hal tries to kiss Ginny, but she ignores it. He kisses her again, but she moves on like it was nothing.

Hal kissing Ginny is a courageous move that most people with social anxiety would be too afraid to attempt even once, let alone twice. Social anxiety goes beyond the fear of just speaking. It’s a fear of any kind of social interaction, especially an intimate act like kissing. The fact that Hal was able to kiss Ginny (an act that involves no speaking) gives some evidence that Hal’s stutter may be more of a simple speech impediment than a result of social anxiety.

Hal discovers Ginny has transferred to a private school. He is upset and tries to find out why she left. Meanwhile, he continues with the debate team without her, and continues suffering from his stutter.

MR. LEWINSKY

Uh, I’m advising…that you should try to do an accent.

For me, speaking in an accent would make me even more anxious and self-conscious, so I don’t think that tactic would work for social anxiety. Hal tries speaking in a Korean accent while debating, but it doesn’t help his stutter, either.

Hal goes to Ginny’s house, hoping to find out why she left school, but she avoids him. Eventually, they meet as opponents at a debate, and Hal discovers the truth—that Ginny was using him. She’d encourage hopeless debaters like Hal to join the team so she’d have less competition.

Hal seeks out help from Ben, the former debate star, who dropped out of school and is working at a dry cleaner. Ben helps Hal by telling him to sing during his debate to get over his stuttering. And, for once, the advice works—kind of. Hal still stutters, but he continues speaking through the stutters, rather than getting worked up and letting it freeze him like it used to.

Unfortunately, Hal and Ben get disqualified from the competition because they entered as a made-up homeschool. Hal speaks to Ginny after the debate.

HAL

Well, uh…uh…today was not my day.

GINNY

Okay?

HAL

But…but, uh…but…but, uh…some…someday will be. And…and on…on that day, you…you will be sitting at home alone. And you’ll…you’ll think to yourself…when you’re alone that…that…that…I knew him when. Him being me.

GINNY

Don’t you dare go thinking this was easy for me or simple! If you think my feelings on the matter were clear, then you’d be underestimating my complexity. And while I see that you don’t recognize this now, you actually have me to thank—in part, modesty forces me to acknowledge, but in large part—for your newfound zest of competition and gamesmanship. That was very clever of you, to find Ben. Surprisingly clever and very painful. Which means that I upped your game, little man. You’re welcome!

Hal expresses optimism that he will succeed one day. And Ginny admits that she may have had some feelings for Hal, after all.

I was almost always optimistic about overcoming my social anxiety—sometimes delusionally so. I thought I’d eventually outgrow my shyness. But it isn’t something that goes away on its own. It wasn’t until I took action in helping myself that I started to make progress.

NARRATOR

Eventually, all of this would pass. And the memory of it would give way to embellishment and fantasy and outright distortion, until it was hard for Hal Hefner to remember what he was really like back then. When he still carried in his head the sound of a made-up perfect voice, the voice that could speak its heart, the voice he used to wish he had, until the day he stopped wishing he sounded like anyone else and just started talking as he was.

This is the key point of the film. As with stuttering, with social anxiety, we have this “perfect voice” in our heads that we think is the correct way to speak and act. And when we are unable to achieve that perfect voice out loud, it discourages us from speaking at all. But there is no “perfect voice.” Whether we stutter or sound nervous or shake or pause, we just need to get through it, and talk as we talk.

Hal goes to a pizza shop, and once again, he tries to order pizza. He stutters, but the stutter actually helps him this time, and the guy gives him three slices for free.

Sometimes good things come from our “flaws.” Social anxiety would keep me home alone a lot, but I probably wouldn’t have read or written as much if I was out socializing with friends.

After the debate, Hal talks to his father:

HAL

You know, it shouldn’t be…shouldn’t…it really shouldn’t be like rocket, uh…shouldn’t be rocket, um… Sometimes, I don’t know, I guess I just wonder when it all starts to make sense, you know?

DAD

All what?

HAL

All this. You know, everything.

DAD

Oh. Well, I guess there comes a point, you see, when you reach a certain age and you’re in Jersey, or someplace just like it, and…you stop trying to figure it all out. You just…are glad for what you have.

This hammers home the theme to Rocket Science, which is similar to the theme of Thumbsucker, another movie about high school debaters—to accept yourself.

When Hal finally accepts his stuttering as okay, and not a big deal, he is finally able to overcome it. His stutter is not gone completely, but whereas before, it made him unable to speak at all, he now learns to speak through the stutter. It’s the same with social anxiety. We may be shy and awkward and even stutter a little ourselves, but we need to accept our shyness and anxiety as okay, and not a reason to stop trying to talk. It’s okay if we’re nervous and stutter—we shouldn’t let that stop us from speaking at all.

Reviewing the Reviewers:

“…suddenly he freezes. His mind goes blank and he can’t think of a single thing to say. Who can’t identify with that?” – Roger Ebert

“Hal suffers from a speech disorder. He can form the words in his mind, but they don’t come out of his mouth properly. His stuttering has made him a social misfit.” – James Berardinelli

Behind the Scenes:

blitz

Jeffery Blitz, the writer/director of Rocket Science, suffered from a stutter himself, and he used his experiences as inspiration for the film.

“I was a talker. Even when I stuttered badly I never let it shut me up, so when a witty or pungently obnoxious line would pop into my head I would fight hard to share it even if I had to stutter through it.”

The stutterers I’ve met in my life weren’t really shy either. They were actually quite confident and talkative people. Hal’s character seems to fall in that unfortunate group of having both a stutter and social anxiety.

“Every sentence that I spoke I immediately thought, ‘OK, that’s the word I’m trying to say. I can’t get there. I turned that sentence upside down.’ You feel so self-conscious. You have an idea of what to say in your head, a sentence that arrives in your head and you can’t say that sentence. It’s such a bizarre thing.”

Blitz encapsulates the true difference between social anxiety and stuttering. Both know what they want to say and are unable to say it, but stutterers are physically unable to say what they want to say, whereas people with social anxiety are mentally afraid to say it.

Judgement:

rocket-science2

The character of Hal Hefner clearly suffers from some social anxiety in the film Rocket Science, but I think it’s fairly evident that Hal feels social anxiety because of his stutter, rather than he stutters because of his social anxiety. I am not familiar enough with speech impediments to know the root cause of stuttering, so it’s possible that it could be the result of some deep-rooted fear or anxiety. Though stuttering and social anxiety are different disorders, Hal suffers a lot of the same problems, and the ultimate way to overcome those problems are quite similar. Accept yourself. And realize that your “flaw” may not be such a flaw after all.

Rocket Science as a Movie: 8/10

As a portrayal of social anxiety: 7/10

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3 thoughts on “Social Anxiety in Movies: Rocket Science

  1. Pingback: Social Anxiety in Movies | Tim Barry Jr.

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