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

By Mark Walsh — April 07, 2017 3 min read
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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.