Friday, April 7, 2017

Speech & Debate: Movie Review


Conquering intolerance with hilarity and amusement.

Stand up and sing, or say something, or just do anything. Speech & Debate does an excellent job in helping its lead characters find their voice. This is about the injustice in high schools: an aspiring journalist being told exactly what to write and not being helped to get into a good school, an aspiring singer denied the lead role in the school musical because she’s too theatrical, outspoken and not pretty enough, and a gay kid not allowed to really be himself because the community is just not progressive enough. 2017

Directed by: Dan Harris

Screenplay by: Stephen Karam
Based on the play by Stephen Karam

Starring: Sarah Steele, Liam James and Austin P. McKenzie

Speech & Debate is not preachy though, it’s just too clever to be that. It’s a comedy, and a comedy-musical at times, as three teenagers get in over their heads and are damn entertaining as they do that. Led primarily by Sarah Steele as Diwata Jones (a name she knows makes her destined to be famous) who is determined to prove her talents to the world. This includes making up songs to sing, posting them to her YouTube blog regularly and even outing her teacher (although she’s a little too stubborn to realize that probably won’t help her get the lead role). I needed to introduce Steele now to get more to her brilliance later, but the brilliance of the film also needs to be discussed.

There are three acts to the film, as most well-written films should have, and the first does not disappoint. The first act introduces the conservative values of the school. Set in Salem, Oregon, their adaptation of “Once Upon a Mattress”, a play version of “The Princess & the Pea” (you know, the children’s fairy tale), has been re-written because it was deemed too racy. Howie (Austin P. McKenzie)’s request to have a Gay Student Alliance is turned down, but he is told that they are open to “Gays and lesbians. And Latinos”. An hilarious line that reinforces how far this community is from actual progression. And don’t worry, we also get multiple hilarious references to Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1692.

The second act ventures away from the hypocrisy and the injustices, and into the personal lives of the students. Ultimately the film is about teenagers finding their voice – courage to be who they are, and the opportunities to figure out who they are, so I guess it’s only fair if the film spends time doing that. This is definitely the down time of the film, a slower period, as the actors do a better job when there’s action and things to be done.

It all leads to a highly entertaining third act. A finale where the teachers and parents proudly show off their intolerance and the kids show everybody what they’re made of with an original performance number that is very cleverly funny. Some great casting is done with the teachers and parents: names like Janeane Garofalo, Kal Penn, Skylar Astin and especially Roger Bart, all have multiple scenes that are very funny.

But my final thought is saved for Sarah Steele. An actress who had the same role in the Broadway version and who I previously barely knew from small roles in random films, owns the screen here. She is delightfully funny, caustic, and ultimately endearing as the determined and multi-talented Diwata Jones. A performance that deserves to be held up against the recently praised teenage roles like Emma Stone in Easy A, Ellen Page in Juno and Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen; she is witty, tough and vulnerable, goes through the teenage insecurities with ease, and throughout the entire film, is highly entertaining.

Did I mention Speech & Debate is good? It almost makes you want to go back to high school and conquer everything that held you down as these two heroes and heroine attempt to do. Or just watch their story, it’s funny and uplifting in an entertaining way.