×

Film Review: ‘Speech & Debate’

A tamed adaptation of the hit Off-Broadway play, "Speech & Debate" makes an unconvincing case.

With:
Sarah Steele, Liam James, Austin P. McKenzie, Janeane Garofolo, Kal Penn, Roger Bart, Skylar Astin, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Darren Criss, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Adapted from Stephen Karam’s hit 2007 Off-Broadway play, Dan Harris’ film “Speech & Debate” unites three teenage outcasts who form their own speech and debate club in order to fight the repressive mores of their Salem, Oregon high school. Each has their own reasons for rebelling. For self-assured Howie (Austin P. McKenzie), it’s the school board’s refusal to let him establish a Gay-Straight Alliance. For dour Solomon (Liam James), it’s the heavily censored school newspaper. And for outspoken aspiring actress Diwata (Sarah Steele), it’s the school’s decision to bowdlerize a student theater production in order to placate conservative townspeople.

That latter conflict proves particularly ironic, as “Speech & Debate” does much the same thing with its own source material. Once a darkly comic romp centered around outing a pedophile teacher, this adaptation has been shorn of its sharpest edges, leaving a largely unfocused, conventional teen dramedy in its place. Though energetically shot and blessed with some appealing performances (including winningly strange cameos for theater darlings Lin-Manuel Miranda and Darren Criss), “Speech & Debate” never manages to make a convincing case for itself.

Steele, who originated the character Diwata in the play’s first run, is the clear cast standout, managing to make her friendless, theater-obsessed would-be diva almost lovably irritating. Much higher on self-confidence and promotional instincts than talent, Diwata shamelessly tries to upstage her castmates at school (even though she’s stuck in minor roles) and spends her evenings recording bedroom YouTube videos of her own original songs, some of which rail against the school’s drama teacher, Mr. Healy (Skylar Astin).

Diwata’s mother (Janeane Garofalo) sits on the school board with Solomon’s stepfather (Kal Penn) and Howie’s mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and after a meeting where the board agrees to remove all references to unwed pregnancy in the school’s staging of “Once Upon a Mattress,” Diwata and Howie meet. New in town, Howie is horrified to discover that he’s possibly the only gay kid at school, and he’s busy setting up a Tindr date with an older man soon revealed to be Mr. Healy. (An essential plot point in the play, the teacher’s predatory ways have been reduced to just a strange little quirk here.) Meanwhile, the socially maladroit Solomon launches a crusade to report on city hall malfeasance in the school newspaper, only to be continually thwarted by the paper’s fearful faculty adviser.

Eventually the three form a speech and debate club as a way to channel their interests and fight against the backwards-thinking school board and an unsympathetic principal (Roger Bart). After a training montage, they make a disastrous attempt to participate in a Portland competition, and get into some big-city trouble when they miss the bus home. (Though by far the most standard-issue teen movie stretch of the film, the scenes of ill-fated public speeches and mild drug freakouts are also the film’s funniest.)

Once they get back to Salem, the film begins to seriously meander. There rarely seems to be much really driving any of these characters, and their battles against authority remain hazy and uninvolving. Aside from Steele’s consistent magnetism, the film rarely shows much of a spark, and even the splashy climax – where the three perform an original routine combining “The Crucible,” Abraham Lincoln, and an interpretive dance set to George Michael’s “Freedom” – comes across more as a politely amusing sketch than the showstopper it clearly was onstage.

Film Review: 'Speech & Debate'

Reviewed online, April 4, 2017. Running time: 95 MINS.

Production: A Sycamore Pictures production. Produced by Tom Rice. Executive producers, Dan Harris, Ben Nearn.

Crew: Directed by Dan Harris. Screenplay: Stephen Karam, based on his play. Camera (color): David Hennings. Editor: Robert Hoffman. Music: Deborah Lurie.

With: Sarah Steele, Liam James, Austin P. McKenzie, Janeane Garofolo, Kal Penn, Roger Bart, Skylar Astin, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Darren Criss, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

More Film

  • Mother and son bonding in Wayne

    Wayne Wang’s ‘Coming Home Again’ to be Handled by Asian Shadows (EXCLUSIVE)

    Specialty film sales agent Asian Shadows has picked up international rights to “Coming Home Again,” by Wayne Wang, one of Asia’s most celebrated directors. The film, which tackles food, family and mortality, will premiere as a special presentation at the Toronto festival in September. Based on a short story of the same name, published in [...]

  • The Great Hack (2019) - pictured:

    Film Review: 'The Great Hack'

    When I was growing up, we learned that the moral cornerstone of the First Amendment — the very essence of it — is that it’s about protecting the speech you don’t like. If the Nazis aren’t allowed to march in Skokie (a major test case in the 1970s), then a treacherous principle gets laid down: that [...]

  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

    ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Columbia Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Ads placed for the drama had an estimated media value of $5.71 million through Sunday for 997 national ad [...]

  • Circus of Books

    Outfest Film Review: 'Circus of Books'

    Rachel Mason grew up believing that her parents ran a small bookstore in Los Angeles. She wasn’t entirely mistaken, although the naive young woman — then an artsy teen, now a documentary filmmaker — never imagined that, as her mother Karen bluntly tells her on camera, “at one point, we were probably the biggest distributor [...]

  • Themba Ntuli and Ashley Lazarus

    Ashley Lazarus, Director of Apartheid-Era Cult Classic, Returns to Screen

    DURBAN–Director Ashley Lazarus, whose film about the interracial friendship between two young boys during the apartheid era became a South African cult classic in the 1970s, is set to return to the big screen with a film that builds on his life-long passion for early-childhood education. “Teacher Wanted” is the inspirational story of a teacher [...]

  • Channing Tatum

    Channing Tatum's Free Association Partners With Atwater Capital for Film Development Fund

    Free Association, a production company led by Channing Tatum, Peter Kiernan and Reid Carolin, has entered into a film development fund with Atwater Capital. The four-year $2 million revolving fund stipulates that Atwater will finance a minimum of five films with Free Association. Michael Parets, VP of production, will oversee the deal. Free Association will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content