Los Angeles Film Festival

With its esoteric rules and ultra-ambitious participants, competitive high school debate would seem, at first glance, a dry and potentially off-putting subject for a documentary. But Greg Whiteley, whose rock 'n' roll portrait "New York Doll" remains one of the more memorable and poignant nonfiction films of recent years, delivers surprises at every turn in the engaging and provocative "Resolved."

The film, which received the audience award for best docu feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival, plunges the viewer into a world that is, to be sure, impenetrable to anyone who's not versed in the lingo known as the spread (short for "speed reading"). Over the past four decades, high school debate has morphed into a sort of performance art in which debaters sound like gasping auctioneers spewing forth a 400-word-per-minute bombardment of factoids. In its early sequences, Whiteley's film appears to be a fascinating but dispiriting look at the way the system values information processing (or microprocessing) over eloquent, finely tuned arguments designed to persuade. But by its final scenes, "Resolved" has delivered a very unexpected and well-earned jolt of hope.

The first surprise is that not all debaters are pedigreed preppies. The film follows the 2005 and 2006 competitive circuit, focusing on two public school teams. In Texas, nonconformist Sam Iola, who doesn't see the point of doing homework, leads the highly ranked Highland Park team, which includes earnest up-and-comer Matt Andrews. At Southern California's Long Beach Jordan, where only 12%-18% of graduates go on to a four-year college, a young teacher named David Wiltz has reinstituted a debate program and come some way toward overcoming the nerd stigma. Against all odds, the school's Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches, the only black team on the circuit, nab the state championship and head for the national Tournament of Champions.

As they climb the ranks, the instantly likable Richard and Louis also begin to deconstruct the very assumptions that define debate, aiming to rescue it from a mere computation of research. Inspired by the Brazilian educator-philosopher Paulo Freire, they question the precedence of strategy over content and set out to infuse the proceedings with real-world relevance. They turn off the speed-talking and introduce matters of race and economics to the dialogue. Their intelligence, passion and daring are exhilarating. Predictably, they meet some resistance, but the most thrilling twist of all is the way many judges and fellow debaters welcome their critique as a revelation and rise to the occasion.

If we need reminders that these kids are all go-getters, former debaters Jane Pauley, Josh Lucas, Samuel Alito, Juan Williams and Karl Rove offer brief talking-head commentary. But the real stars are the exceptional teens Whiteley focuses on. Sean Donnelly's playful animated graphics are an apt addition to the high-energy discussion.

One Potato Prods.
Director-producer: Greg Whiteley
Executive producers: Lisa Vick Kraus, Peter Kraus, Mark Clark, Sarah J. Clark, Marc and Wendy Stanley, Andy and Liz Waters
Directors of photography: Tristan Whitman, Liam Dalzell
Editors: Greg Whiteley, Tom Runquist, Brad Barber
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating