Speech & Debate
The defanged film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s 2007 play Speech & Debate takes a Breakfast Club approach to high school characters, defining each by a single trait. There’s journalism nerd Solomon (Liam James), theater geek Diwata (Sarah Steele), and openly gay Howie (Austin P. McKenzie). These attributes are enough to make them social outcasts in a Salem, Oregon, portrayed as a conservative bastion, but the location is primarily symbolic, allowing Diwata to regularly cite The Crucible and Massachusetts’s witch trials.
In the stage version, this trio comes together to expose hypocrisy in their puritanical town, and reveal that the drama teacher is pursuing students. Karam touches on this in his screenplay but swaps that specific scenario for the amorphous malaise of adolescence. Solomon, Diwata, and Howie have parents on the school board, but still don’t feel their voices are being heard, so they revive the speech-and-debate club as their megaphone.
Director Dan Harris (Imaginary Heroes) structures Speech & Debate like a musical comedy that’s building up to a cathartic final number, but scene after scene just falls flat. Without research or preparation, their first speech-and-debate competition is a disaster. (They utilize YouTube and Tinder, but not Google.) Solomon labels petty injustices as censorship and his friends follow suit although, unlike him, they’ve encountered real obstacles. Even Diwata’s ebullient musical interludes can’t lift this depressing vehicle from its morass. Dissatisfaction is the driving force in dead-end Salem, where everyone is spinning their wheels and going nowhere.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on April 7, 2017 by Vertical Entertainment
First published in The Village Voice, 2017.
Speech & Debate is available on Netflix