Review: “Speech and Debate”

4 out of 5 stars.

“Speech and Debate” opens on a school board meeting in the small, conservative town of Salem, Oregon, immediately setting up the tone of the film and the environment in which this story takes place.  The town’s mayor has recently resigned due to scandal, while the choice for this year’s school musical, “Once Upon a Mattress,” is being condemned by citizens for centering around an unwed pregnant woman.  As a result, the play will be censored, much to the outrage of aspiring—yet not very talented—thespian Diwata (Sarah Steele).

The scenes immediately following introduce the three main characters and their problems with the hypocrisy of the school board, their parents, and their teachers, who all preach a pure lifestyle but don’t exactly follow through with that in their private lives.  Solomon (Liam James) is an aspiring journalist who writes for the school paper, but is never allowed to write about anything that could be considered controversial.  His story about the mayor is shot down, and he is forced to pick from a variety of lame topics, resulting in him covering the school play.  Howie (Austin McKenzie), meanwhile, is the new kid, and seemingly the only gay kid, in school.  Feeling alone, he petitions the school board to approve a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance, but they shoot him down (or at least, the three men on the board do; the two women seem to be the only sane ones in the room, and are in favor of it), using the excuse that it would be more of a social hour than an actual club, but reassuring him that they fully support “gays, lesbians…and Latinos.”

Solomon, Diwata, and Howie end up coming together through their frustrations to revive the school’s speech and debate club, which would allow Solomon and Howie to express their feelings over issues that are important to them, and would allow Diwata to act her heart out in the program’s dramatic interpretation section.  They’re a group of misfits who don’t have any friends but end up finding solace in each other, but this isn’t the underdog story you may be expecting.  The trio never become speech and debate champions (in fact, they kind of suck at it), but they apply their knowledge of how it works to their situations in their own hilarious—and effective—way.

Speech and Debate 2
Solomon (Liam James) and Diwata (Sarah Steele) try to recruit other students for the speech and debate team

Based on the off-Broadway play by Tony-winner Stephen Karam (who also adapted the screenplay for this film) and directed by Dan Harris, “Speech and Debate” is a film that joins the ranks of the increasingly witty and topical teen comedies that have been released recently (see “Sing Street” and “The Edge of Seventeen).  Its characters may be high schoolers dealing with the usual high school things, like being bullied and unpopular (or, in the case of Diwata, desperately seeking more views on her YouTube channel), but they are also forced to deal with adult situations.  Even the adults themselves have problems that the story ties in to the issues their children have; Diwata’s single mom struggles to provide for, and connect with, her daughter, while Solomon is upset and anxious by his parents’ constant fighting.  The story is also very in tune with the current state of social media in our lives, especially the lives of young people, where a single slip up or success could go viral and make or break your reputation.

The script, as mentioned before, is witty, with some wildly funny dialogue and crazy scenes (like the film’s climax, which I won’t go into any further detail about because you just need to see it to appreciate it) punctuated by quieter moments that reveal a bit more about the characters.  Steele, who originated the role of Diwata on stage, is brilliant as a more extreme Rachel Berry type, as are James and McKenzie, who do a great job letting the audience glimpse into their characters’ insecurities.  Jeremy Rowley steals the show as the angry citizen in the opening scene, while cast also includes Kal Penn, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Roger Bart, and Janeane Garofalo.  The story itself is also a sort of love letter to Broadway, crammed with references to various Broadway plays and musicals.  Diwata performs a medley of Broadway hits ranging from “Hamilton” to “The King and I” for an audition, while Kristin Chenoweth performs an original song that plays over the end credits.  Outside of the main cast, the film also includes several fun cameos from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Darren Criss, and Skyler Astin.

“Speech and Debate,” like the lives of its protagonists, is far from flawless.  The stakes in the film are never really that high; this story isn’t as much about exacting change as it is about the characters changing themselves.  But not all of the characters’ stories feel completely tied up at the end; in fact, while the characters do end up happier at the end of the film compared to where they started, it’s hard to say whether they will end up fulfilling their desires in the long run, or changing everything they wanted to see change.  For instance, will Diwata ever get to be a lead actress like she wants so badly, or will she realize that it probably isn’t going to happen and settle for something else?  The movie ends with her getting excited about having 84 views on a YouTube video that may or may not go anywhere.  At the same time that’s okay; things don’t happen so easily in real life, and it’s nice to see that reflected on film as well.

“Speech and Debate” will be in select theaters and on demand April 7, and is currently available on iTunes. Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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