It could have been a cheap joke: a stuttering teen trying out for the debate team. But in Jeffrey Blitz's smartly comic

Rocket Science

, the painful predicament of high schooler Hal Hefner (Reece Thompson) becomes something more - a sardonic, poignant take on adolescent angst, suburban dysphoria, and first love.

With shades of the misfit youth pic Thumbsucker, the recent U.K. coming-of-age entry Starter for 10, and the deadpan, left-of-center absurdism of Wes Anderson, Rocket Science has a voice and tone all its own.

Blitz, whose 2002 spelling bee documentary Spellbound was a hit in the art houses and an Oscar nominee, shows real compassion, and understanding, of the awkward, agonizing rites and rituals of teendom. But his film is refreshingly free of sap - there's an ironic timbre here, and a healthy disdain for the neatly wrapped Hollywood resolution.

Hal, a quick-witted kid from a dysfunctional family (with a brow-beating weirdo older brother), knows who he is, and what he wants, but he quite literally can't get the words out.

But then the mega-assured Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), star of the school debate team, takes an interest in Hal - and encourages him to join her on the dais, as they tackle issues from farm subsidies to sexual abstinence. Ginny can see, she says, the insight and intellect locked in Hal's head, waiting to get out.

Understandably smitten, Hal throws himself into training sessions at Ginny's house. He befriends her gawky next-door neighbor - a skinny kid (think Pee-wee Herman at 12) with sex on the brain, who spies on Ginny from his window.

Set in beautiful, bucolic New Jersey - with a wonderful interlude in Trenton, which represents, in the mind of one key character, the be-all of the urban experience - Rocket Science boasts plaintive songs and instrumentals from Eef Barzelay of the Brooklyn band Clem Snide. (His music functions in Rocket Science in similar ways to that The Shins limned another Jersey tale, Garden State.)

Blitz captures the melancholy, the rage, the wackiness and drama of adolescence, and he gets winning performances out of his young stars.

Rocket Science *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz. With Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, sexual themes)

Playing at: Ritz East at 7 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Monday.EndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.