Education

Resolved: Misfit High School Students Shine in ‘Speech & Debate’ Movie

By Mark Walsh — April 07, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

High school movies and misfits go together like Betsy DeVos and investment accounts. “Speech & Debate,” a movie opening Friday based on a 2007 Off-Broadway play of the same name, is about three nonconformist high school students who are striving to express themselves and point out hypocrisy and unfairness in their school and community.

The first of the trio of star characters we meet is Solomon (Liam James, who played the manipulative boy who escaped a lengthy abduction in last year’s “The Family” on ABC). He is the slightly built, nerdy one covering the school board meeting for the high school paper. He has designs on tackling real news and hard-edged topics, but unfortunately has a woefully uninspiring faculty advisor who only wants to assign her students softball topics to write about.

Howie (Austin P. McKenzie, who played the young version of gay rights activist Cleve Jones in ABC’s recent miniseries “When We Rise”) is the self-assured gay student who just moved to this town, but whose mother is somehow a member of the school board. (I must have missed the explanation, perhaps that he moved from one divorced parent to the other.)

Howie wants to form a gay-straight student alliance, but is brushed off by the high school principal (Roger Bart), who says he should channel his energies into the environmental club.

The third central character is Diwata (Sarah Steele, who played the stage role a decade ago, but still can pass for a high school student). Theater is her interest, though her own opinion of her singing and acting talents is not shared by the faculty director of the high school musical, a water-downed version of “Once Upon a Mattress.” (Does that make it a waterbed?)

One of her favorite plays is Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” and it’s no coincidence the film is set in North Salem, Ore., as we are pretty much hit over the head with the parallels to witch-hunting of the Salem, Mass., in the Miller play.

In the well-received play, it seems that the sexual predation of one of the teachers was the target for exposure by the trio of students. In the movie, Howie does some smartphone flirting with someone who turns out to be a male teacher. There is even an ambiguous suggestion that they have a rendezvous, though Howie later throws some doubt on that. In any event, the relationship (or not) is a relatively small part of the story in this movie version.

The trio does get the idea to turn their need for expression into forming a speech and debate club, even though none of the three are particularly well suited for that high school avocation. They have difficulty recruiting other members, they call upon an immigrant cafeteria worker to be their faculty sponsor, and they are on their way to a forensics competition in Portland, Ore.

I had figured this was a work created by someone who was a speech and debate star in high school and wanted to elevate the image of that activity. But this is not the work such a person would have created, as the organized speech and debate activities are a relatively small part of the movie. Stephen Karam, who started writing plays when he was a teenager, wrote the play and the screenplay of “Speech & Debate.”

All three students crash and burn at the debate tournament, and they are soon back in Salem to find other ways to confront their challenges and demons. They will end up making quite a splash at another school board meeting, which not coincidentally is held in the same high school auditorium where “Once Upon a Mattress” is being performed.

“Speech & Debate” is funny and touching at times, but the 90-minute movie feels a little thin.

As can often be the case with high school movies, the adults are a bit cardboard, even with a stellar cast that includes Janeane Garofalo, Kal Penn, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, not to mention winning cameos by Darren Criss and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

But it’s the characters of Solomon, Howie, and Diwata who are fully drawn and who redeem this quirky film. There’s no debate about it.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Vulnerable Students Left Behind as Schooling Disruptions Continue
The effects of unpredictable stretches at home can mirror those of chronic absenteeism and lead to long-term harm to learning.
4 min read
Students board a school bus on New York's Upper West Side on Sept. 13, 2021. Even as most students return to learning in the classroom this school year, disruptions to in-person learning, from missing one day because of a late school bus to an entire two weeks at home due to quarantine, remain inevitable as families and educators navigate the ongoing pandemic.
Students board a school bus on New York's Upper West Side on Sept. 13, 2021. Even as most students return to learning in the classroom this school year, disruptions to in-person learning, from missing one day because of a late school bus to an entire two weeks at home due to quarantine, remain inevitable as families and educators navigate the ongoing pandemic.
Richard Drew/AP
Education 'Widespread' Racial Harassment Found at Utah School District
The federal probe found hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other racial epithets, and harsher discipline for students of color.
1 min read
A CNG, compressed natural gas, school bus is shown at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, March 4, 2013, in Salt Lake City. After a winter with back-to back episodes of severe pollution in northern Utah, lawmakers and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert will discuss clean air legislation and call for government and businesses to convert to clean fuel vehicles.
Federal civil rights investigators found widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students in the Davis school district north of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Rick Bowmer/AP Photo
Education Tiny Wrists in Cuffs: How Police Use Force Against Children
An investigation finds children as young as 6 and a disproportionate amount of Black children have been handled forcibly by police officers.
15 min read
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP