BWW Review: Charming, Irreverent SPEECH & DEBATE Speaks to the Drama Kid in All of Us
There is a palpable need for acceptance running through every moment of the charming and irreverent film adaptation of Stephen Karam's quirky Speech & Debate. The story's three central characters are each longing for acceptance from their peers, their loved ones, or themselves in a way that is all too familiar for anyone who's ever been an awkward teenager. With loving references to the theatrical world, this delightful little film is a must-see for the drama kid in all of us.
Based on the coming-of-age play of the same name that debuted at the Roundabout Theatre Company in 2007, the story centers on three misfit high school students in Salem, Oregon who each finds his or her way to their school's recently revived speech and debate team. Though they all bring their own individual talents and passions to the team, their inexperience leads to some of the most hilariously uncomfortable big screen performances since LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. However, forged in the cringe-inducing crucible of competition, the unlikely trio finds something more valuable than forensic success.
The team members are played by Liam James, Austin P. McKenzie, and Sarah Steele; the last of whom recreates the role she originated Off-Broadway nearly a decade ago. Each the child of a local school board member, they individually find themselves at odds with school policy and turn to the speech and debate team as a way to have their voices heard.
SPRING AWAKENING star McKenzie plays recent transfer Howie who is rebuffed when he tries to form a Gay/Straight Alliance at the conservative school; James plays Solomon, whose dogged journalistic integrity is a little too intense for the school paper; and Steele, most recently of Karam's Tony-winning play THE HUMANS, plays Diwata, whose special brand of thespianic talents are not appreciated by the school's drama teacher.
All three are exceptional at portraying the unique and often debilitating neuroses that comes with being a teenager, but it is James and Steele that form the film's heart. The former's earnestness and the latter's devotion to her art conjure very familiar brands of high school outcast, but they both imbue their characters with such humanity and vulnerability that it instantly transports you back to your own specific feelings of high school rejection. However, through their humor and heart, the three remind us that there is often a home for us to be found with other like-minded loners.
In addition to its stars, the film features a ton of familiar faces in supporting and cameo roles, including Roger Bart as the school's principal; Janeane Garofalo, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kal Penn, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley as the students' parents; Skylar Astin as the school's drama teacher; Darren Criss as himself; and Lin-Manuel Miranda in a small, but magical role. Kristin Chenoweth sings an original song during the closing credits as well, and Jeremy Rowley delivers in unforgettably hilarious opening scene.
Karam adapted his own stage play for the screen, and superhero scribe Dan Harris directs. Despite a modest budget and lack of above-the-title names, SPEECH AND DEBATE succeeds because it so honestly taps into our basic desires to be found, to borrow the parlance of a certain Broadway hit.
Neil Patrick Harris once reminded us that at one point, "we were that kid," and now SPEECH AND DEBATE does the same thing. Whether it is drama club, newspaper, speech and debate, or anything else, there is always a place for us to belong, if we are brave enough to look for it.
Check out the trailer for SPEECH AND DEBATE:
Speech & Debate starring Liam James, Sarah Steele, Austin P. McKenzie, Roger Bart, Janeane Garofalo, Kal Penn, Skylar Astin, and more is now playing and is available On Demand. Speech & Debate is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving teen sexuality, substance use, and some language.