The cultural and intellectual underpinnings of high school debate teams are put under the microscope in Greg Whiteley’s engrossing doc, “Resolved.” Full of details that will both shock and induce nostalgia among former debaters, and refreshing in its presentation of American teens as intelligent young adults, pic reveals a fascinating rift inside the debate world that could portend a coming revolution. More cerebral than docs it superficially resembles, like “Spellbound,” pic has a quality fest run in sight and should draw serious distrib and media interest, with best coin in ancillary.
Judging by the opening minutes, Whiteley seems to be going after exactly the type of type-A, grade-A students one might expect to shine in high school debate — in cruder terms, nerdy white kids (mostly guys from private schools). To his credit, though, Whiteley is searching for bigger game and greater meaning than one usually finds in American docs about oddball subcultures.
At Texas’ Highland Park High School, he trails the curious team of Matt Andrews and Sam Iola, the former a brilliant sophomore, the latter a legendary senior on the national debate circuit. Andrews is dubbed “the Boy” for being the youngest on the varsity squad (typically composed of seniors only), while Iola is known for following his own rules and is so bored by most classes that even though he’s ranked in the top 1% of all debaters nationwide, his grades are below average.
By contrast — and the contrast at first looks like an arch storytelling contrivance — Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches lead the debate squad at poorly funded, minority-heavy Jordan High in Long Beach, Calif. Louis is termed as exceptionally smart by his coaches, and Richard, despite a tendency to lose his cool, is every bit his equal.
Pic cleverly explains (aided by some ingenious stop-motion animation by Sean Donnelly) the odd stylistic changes that overtook debating in the 1970s, shifting from normal vocal delivery to a high-speed chatter, a la auctioneers, dubbed “the Flow,” intended to pack as much information as possible within a time allotment. As Cal State Fullerton coach Jon Brushke and others explain, the weapon of pure argumentation was replaced by that of information overload.
In an uncanny way, “Resolved” touches on a key characteristic of contempo life — the avalanche of information and data that threatens to overwhelm users. While “the Flow” has long been an accepted norm, Louis and Richard intend to propose that this form is inherently exclusionary and racist, since it is predicated on a team’s ability to spend huge chunks of time (meaning money) on research and prioritizes formal delivery over meaningful content.
What’s most impressive about this tactic is that it’s based, under the guidance of their heroic coach Dave Wiltz, on the literature of Brazilian educator and writer Paolo Friere (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”), which argues for teaching methods that stress real-world problems over rote memorization. “Resolved” reaches a peak of intellectual excitement when these two kids from the inner city blow away their more privileged competish with their Friere-inspired approach.
It looks as if Whiteley is heading toward an inevitable faceoff between the Jordan and Highland Park teams, but real life — and a few character hiccups — provide enough complications so that pic follows a far less predictable course.
The results yield a generous helping of ideas and talking points, from the ways today’s youth are grossly underrated by their parents’ media to how racism in American life can be invisible except to those experiencing it. Pic also provides an iron-clad case for the value of high school debate as a life-changing experience (with testimony from Jane Pauley, commentator Juan Williams and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito) as well as a deeply American practice.
Shooting on vid, Tristan Whitman and Liam Dalzell turn a seemingly static activity into one full of filmic interest, with ace editing by Whiteley, Tom Runquist and Brad Barber.