'Speech & Debate': Film Review

Courtesy of Haley Rynn Ringo
What seemed fresh and original onstage now feels hopelessly artificial.

Award-winning playwright Stephen Karam adapts his 2007 work about a trio of misfit high school students for the screen.

What seemed charmingly provocative onstage falls thuddingly flat in the film adaptation of Stephen Karam’s 2007 acclaimed off-Broadway play Speech & Debate. The playwright, who’s since gone on to win a Tony Award for The Humans, has here adapted his own work for the screen. But his cinematic inexperience, and the tonally awkward direction by Dan Harris (Imaginary Heroes), reduces the work to the level of a risqué Afterschool Special. The film’s stage origins, and a cameo appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda, may be of interest to theater buffs, but everyone else will be left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Largely neglecting the play’s principal plotline involving a sexually predatory teacher, the film mostly concentrates on the quirky personalities of its three young misfit protagonists attending a high school in — symbolism spoiler alert — Salem. Not the witch-hunting one in Massachusetts, mind you, but rather the capital of Oregon. They are Diwata (Sarah Steele), a supremely self-confident video blogger who imagines herself as a Bette Midler in the making; the openly gay Howie (Austin P. McKenzie), who chafes at the school administration’s intolerance and refusal to let him create a gay students organization; and the socially awkward Solomon (Liam James), an aspiring investigative journalist determined to overcome the restrictions placed on the high school paper.

Much of the episodic storyline concerns the decision of the drama teacher (Skylar Astin) to bowdlerize the upcoming school production of the musical Once Upon a Mattress so that its heroine is no longer unmarried and pregnant. Diwata becomes incensed by the censorship, not to mention that she’s been passed over for lead role and has instead been relegated to the chorus.

In an effort to fight back, the trio decides to revive the school’s long dormant speech-and-debate society. They wind up competing in a statewide competition in Portland that goes disastrously awry even before they miss the bus home. It all leads to a climactic sequence in which they wind up performing, clad in skintight body suits, an elaborate but painfully unfunny song-and-dance number that somehow manages to combine Abraham Lincoln, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and George Michael’s song “Freedom.”

From the uptight school principal (Roger Bart) to the various parents and teachers (Wendi McLedon-Covey, Kal Penn, Kimberly Williams-Paisley), all of the adult characters are boringly one-dimensional. The solo exception is Janeane Garofalo, who, as Diwata’s mother, movingly conveys the difficulties of single parenthood. The lead performers fare better, although Steele, now 28, seems far too mature for the role she created onstage a decade ago.

Further accentuating the film’s stage origins is a cameo by Glee star and frequent Broadway performer Darren Criss and an original song sung over the end credits by Kristin Chenoweth. The latter serves as musical icing on a by-now stale cake.    

Production company: Sycamore Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Sarah Steele, Liam James, Austin P. McKenzie, Janeane Garofolo, Kal Penn, Roger Bart, Skylar Astin, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kimberly Williams-Paisley
Director: Dan Harris
Screenwriter: Stephen Karam
Producer: Tom Rice
Executive producers: Dan Harris, Ben Nearn
Director of photography: David Hennings
Production designer: Darcy C. Skanlin
Editor: Robert Hoffman
Costume designer:
Composer: Deborah Lurie

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes

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