Eye For Film >> Movies >> Speech And Debate (2017) Film Review
Speech And Debate
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Adapted by Stephen Karam from his own play, Speech & Debate is the story of three young people reacting to another adaptation of another play, Once Upon A Mattress. Their school principle, shocked by the idea of teen pregnancy, has censored it to remove the offending material, removing much of the plot in the process. Video blogger Diwata (Sarah Steele) is particularly outraged by this because not only is it an attack on freedom of speech, she has been denied a leading role and cast as part of the chorus. Together with friends Solomon (Liam James) and Howie (Austin McKenzie), she looks for a way they can make their voices heard even without a play as a vehicle. The solution: reform the school's old Speech & Debate society.
Censorship in educational institutions is a hot topic at the moment and there are lots of interesting things that could be said about it, so it's rather a shame that, by staying true to his play, Karam has missed out on this, and the film may seem rather simplistic to viewers as a result. Nevertheless, it's a pertinent reminder that, despite the hype about political correctness, most censorship is conservative in nature. Solomon works for the school newspaper but investigative reporting into controversial subjects is clearly unwelcome. Howie wants to start a Gay/Straight Alliance. "Have you ever played lacrosse?" he is asked.
Although the plot meanders wildly and the message of the film lacks focus, this is consistent with the character of its protagonists, convincingly muddled teenagers who are trying to find their voices at the same time as they're trying to make them heard. Suffice to say that nothing much goes to plan for them. The ambition that might lead to unexpected victory in a more conventional cinematic tale is treated more realistically here, with overreaching oneself having consequences. It's in this awkwardness that the film finds most of its humour, and its natural audience would seem to be young people with a keen sense of their own shortcomings. Nevertheless, the perky young cast keep us rooting for them most of the way through, with only occasional missteps.
Speech & Debate was originally a musical, and the translation of the musical elements to the screen isn't entirely successful. The spontaneity of these moments is less believable, and other characters' reactions to them don't always convince; they also flatten the effect of the performances. The quality of the singing and dancing is high, however, and its introduction as a device Diwata uses in her video blog gives it more plausibility. It aids in the film's attempt to illustrate that talent isn't enough without ideas, and (in the context of a debating competition) that ideas are not enough without talent and situational awareness.
All in all, this is a plucky but rather disorganised attempt to explore pressing issues. For a teen-focused film, it's refreshingly lacking in cynicism, but its fate will depend on whether or not its audience shares this quality.Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2017