Speech & Debate
Speech & Debate (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“Speech & Debate,” based on the play and screenplay by Stephen Karam, is a well-intentioned comedy about three high school students who band together because they are tired of adults consistently ignoring their voices and pushing them to the side, but it falls short of becoming a picture that both teenagers and adults—who were teenagers once—can relate with. For the most part, the writing disappoints: look closely at how it characterizes adults, how one-dimensional most of them are. While the material is supposed to stir up real conversations about real issues, it is all the more disappointing that there is not enough dramatic gravity put into the subjects it touches.
The performances by Sarah Steele, Liam James, and Austin P. McKenzie teem with enthusiasm. Each of them manages to embody the awkwardness and frustration of being a teenager—too old to be treated like children but too young to be treated as seriously as adults. Although the plot leads to a speech and debate competition early in the picture, it becomes clear that this is not what the movie is about. It is about friendship and how three vastly different young adults manage to find a way to get their voices heard and create some kind of change. Steele, James, and McKenzie share highly watchable chemistry.
But the material, in order for it to be taken seriously, requires the adults to function as effective sounding boards. This is where the film is crippled. The adults comprise of performers with strong presence—Roger Bart, Gal Penn, Skylar Astin, to name a few. But they are not written in such a way that we understand where they are coming from, too. I would even go as far as to argue that they are not written to be intelligent. Some of them are treated as villains—which should almost never be the case in coming-of-age films that just so happen to have comedic elements in it. At times we get nothing from the adults other than reaction shots.
Although the screenplay is most comfortable with embracing over-the-top extremes, particularly Diwata’s (Steele) penchant for performing on stage, it is not afraid to take more somber turns and adopt a more serious tone when necessary. For instance, there is an interesting dynamic between Solomon (James) and Howie (McKenzie), most fascinating the moment the latter reveals to the former a possible reason why their classmates consider and treat Solomon like a loser (even though we know he’s not). I enjoyed that the material is honest in its portrayal of the truth being really hard to hear sometimes.
Directed by Dan Harris, “Speech & Debate” is neither impressive nor memorable, but one can feel its love for teenagers as it goes on. But those hoping for a picture that drills deeply into topics worthy of debate or conversation—censorship, hypocrisy, school politics, identity, and the like—might get bored eventually despite energetic performances by its leads.