Jeffrey Blitz seems to have an affinity for using cerebral competitions among youngsters as springboards for his films. First there was the documentary “Spellbound,” which turned the national spelling bee into a winning nail-biter (and, almost single-handedly, a popular television event.) Now there’s his first fiction feature, set in the world of high-school debate. Like so many campus comedies, “Rocket Science” is basically a coming-of-age story with a strong hormonal element. But it’s a far cry from the string of raunchy let’s-get-laid flicks that extends from “Porky’s” to “Superbad.” Like its characters—and unlike those in most pictures set in high school—this movie is smart.

Newcomer Reece Daniel Thompson plays, very well, Hal Hefner, a New Jersey kid whose stutter makes him shy and withdrawn. His home life is a mess: he’s tormented by his comically thuggish older brother Earl (Vincent Piazza), his parents (Denis O’Hare and Lisbeth Bartlett) have broken up, and his mother has taken up with a judge (Stephen Park) who’s the father of a spaced-out classmate (Aaron Yoo).

Apparent escape from his unhappy circumstances comes from an unexpected quarter when Ginny Ryerson (Anna Kendrick), a super-aggressive overachiever from the debate squad, approaches Hal to join the team as her new partner. Her former one, slick, handsome Ben Wekselbaum (Nicholas D’Agosto), froze during the championship match the previous year and cost her the trophy—something she doesn’t intend to let happen again. Hal’s steamrollered into the quick-talking debating world, and is moreover smitten with Ginny, whom he sees as far more than a potential team colleague.

But of course the ways of romance are twisted, and Hal’s infatuation goes off the rails when Ginny takes a decision that rocks his world and leads him to seek out the most unlikely ally in response. But will his audacious move lead to the kind of triumphant resolution one presumes movies like this will deliver, or a more muted but insightful one? One can guess the answer from the fact that in his previous picture, Blitz showed himself able to move beyond a conventional rah-rah treatment of a student contest to something that touched on deeper human experiences and lessons.

“Rocket Science” has plenty of antecedents, from “Spellbound” to “Election” (whose abrasively ambitious Tracy Flick Ginny can’t help but recall), and you have to suspend your disbelief to a high degree to accept the highly implausible notion that anyone, however certain of their ability to mold others to their will, would choose a person as tongue-tied and introverted as Hal as a likely debate champion. But it goes its own way, conjuring up a quirky sensibility that sometimes goes too far (the subplot about the family that lives across from Ryerson’s house pushes things to the limit) but for the most part comes across as clever rather than cloying. (The school counseling sessions from which Hal benefits not at all are a particularly incisive touch, and pretty funny besides.) It benefits from Blitz’s sharp way with dialogue and characterization, his reasonably steady (if not terribly imaginative) direction, and canny performances, from Thompson, Kendrick and D’Agosto in particular but from the supporting cast as well, even if their roles are sometimes sketchier than one might like. Technically the picture isn’t much—Jo Willems’ camerawork captures the dingy New Jersey locations without glamour but without much eye appeal either. (Authenticity has its price.) But the eclectic music score by Eef Barzelay and Evyen Klean provides a nice tonic for the visual drabness.

Simply making a movie about teen troubles isn’t a matter of rocket science, of course—the steady stream of high school comedies that come from both Hollywood studios and independent filmmakers proves that. But making a good one is difficult. Though some reservations about the result are in order, Blitz has mostly pulled it off.