Hal (Reece Thompson) has something say but he has a lot of trouble saying it. On the bus, he can practice asking for pizza, but when it comes to the moment and he is standing in the cafeteria line, he can’t quite get it out. He has a stutter, the kind of speech impediment that keeps the words stuck in his throat. People tend to ignore him. Either they are tied up in their own worries and do not realize that he deserves their attention, or they assume that because he does not talk he must not be worth listening to.
And then Ginny (Anna Kendricks) sits next to him on the school bus and invites him to join the debate team. She says she sees greatness in him. And, perhaps because of that, or just because she is hyper-articulate and sure of herself, maybe because his parents have just split up and love seems very confusing to him, all of a sudden Hal begins to feel feelings for Ginny that are seismic and shattering and uncontrollable. And so, his actions become as confused and embarrassing as his speech. He sort of stalks her. He sort of grabs her. And when he feels that she has betrayed him, he goes to any length to try to at the same time let her know he does not need her, defeat her, and win her back at the same time.
Director Jeffrey Blitz showed sensitivity to the throes of adolescence in his award-winning documentary about the national spelling bee for middle schoolers, Spellbound. He got those kids to trust him and here, too, and he gets the most from his talented young cast. Thompson is superb, showing perception and vulnerability without seeming mannered or excessive. Kendricks, a Broadway veteran so good in “Camp,” raps out her complex speeches with devastating effect; completely compelling as someone who would bring a dozen perfectly sharpened number 2 pencils to the SATs and challenge them all the way to the Supreme Court if they tried to give her one point less than a perfect score.
The screenplay wavers at times; the structure is a little ragged, there are a couple of self-consciously quirky indie moments, and the ending a little weak. But Thompson and Kendricks and the debate scenes make this one of the best coming-of-age stories in many months.
Parents should know that there are some crude sexual references and high school situations. Characters use some strong language, a teenager smokes, and there are references to drinking and drug use.
Families who see this movie should talk about how difficult it was for Hal to find someone who could understand or help him. Why were all of the adults around him so clueless?
Families who like this movie will also appreciate Napoleon Dynamite and the award-winning spelling bee documentary directed by Blitz, Spellbound. And they will enjoy this interview with writer-director Jeffrey Blitz.