Speak: Film Review

Doc about public speaking remains engaging despite familiar format.

Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling's doc following a public speaking contest finds charm in its subjects despite a familiar format.

Webster's Dictionary defines "inspiration" as "the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions," and Speak, whose subjects are well versed in such rhetorical gimmicks as starting a lecture with a word's definition, is full of folks doing their damnedest to inspire. Some do, and the combination of an accessible topic and sympathetic subjects should draw in a bit of business. But debut documentarians Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling might have found a really wide audience by broadening the picture's scope beyond a single speechifying competition.

The contest in question is the world championship of Toastmasters International, a club comprising not only veteran speakers but those hoping to conquer fears or spread messages they feel are unique. The filmmakers begin with some colorful footage of famous public-speaking disasters, but this quickly gives way to a familiar format: The championship-drama doc, in which we meet a half-dozen contestants and guess which will see his dream come true.

Galichia and Weidling find charm and pathos in their subjects. The roster includes a Utah family man who sees a  professional speaking career as his only hope to provide for his wife and six children; an affable actor who survived a heart attack and now pens sermons on, well, listening to your heart; and a spirited Dallas woman determined not to let Lupus stand between her and an achievement that matters to her.

As we watch them rehearse and develop their speeches, viewers will recognize the rhythms, if not the specifics, of pastors, salesmen, and corporate motivators the world over. Especially since we see only highlights -- the moments meant to touch listeners, without the buildup that makes the emotional effect possible -- it's not too hard to see Speak as one big assemblage of hackneyed dramatic tricks and clichés of empowerment.

The filmmakers do capture some moments (onstage and off) that will move even hardened cynics. But Speak could have been a much more rewarding film by de-emphasizing the contest, trimming the number of characters it follows, and bringing in more information about the biological, psychological, and historical factors that make it such a big deal to get up in front of one's peers. After all, the widely shared fear of speaking applies to people doing far more humble things than trying to break into the self-help lecture circuit.

Production Company: Tumbleweed Entertainment
Directors-Producers: Paul Galichia, Brian Weidling
Executive producer: Michael Maloy
Music: Philip White
Editors: Brian Weidling, Chris Ross Leong
No rating, 88 minutes.