Adapted from Stephen Karam’s hit 2007 Off-Broadway play, Dan Harris’ film “Speech & Debate” unites three teenage outcasts who form their own speech and debate club in order to fight the repressive mores of their Salem, Oregon high school. Each has their own reasons for rebelling. For self-assured Howie (Austin P. McKenzie), it’s the school board’s refusal to let him establish a Gay-Straight Alliance. For dour Solomon (Liam James), it’s the heavily censored school newspaper. And for outspoken aspiring actress Diwata (Sarah Steele), it’s the school’s decision to bowdlerize a student theater production in order to placate conservative townspeople.
That latter conflict proves particularly ironic, as “Speech & Debate” does much the same thing with its own source material. Once a darkly comic romp centered around outing a pedophile teacher, this adaptation has been shorn of its sharpest edges, leaving a largely unfocused, conventional teen dramedy in its place. Though energetically shot and blessed with some appealing performances (including winningly strange cameos for theater darlings Lin-Manuel Miranda and Darren Criss), “Speech & Debate” never manages to make a convincing case for itself.
Steele, who originated the character Diwata in the play’s first run, is the clear cast standout, managing to make her friendless, theater-obsessed would-be diva almost lovably irritating. Much higher on self-confidence and promotional instincts than talent, Diwata shamelessly tries to upstage her castmates at school (even though she’s stuck in minor roles) and spends her evenings recording bedroom YouTube videos of her own original songs, some of which rail against the school’s drama teacher, Mr. Healy (Skylar Astin).
Diwata’s mother (Janeane Garofalo) sits on the school board with Solomon’s stepfather (Kal Penn) and Howie’s mother (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and after a meeting where the board agrees to remove all references to unwed pregnancy in the school’s staging of “Once Upon a Mattress,” Diwata and Howie meet. New in town, Howie is horrified to discover that he’s possibly the only gay kid at school, and he’s busy setting up a Tindr date with an older man soon revealed to be Mr. Healy. (An essential plot point in the play, the teacher’s predatory ways have been reduced to just a strange little quirk here.) Meanwhile, the socially maladroit Solomon launches a crusade to report on city hall malfeasance in the school newspaper, only to be continually thwarted by the paper’s fearful faculty adviser.
Eventually the three form a speech and debate club as a way to channel their interests and fight against the backwards-thinking school board and unsympathetic principal (Roger Bart). After a training montage, they make a disastrous attempt to participate in a Portland competition, and get into some big-city trouble when they miss the bus home. (Though by far the most standard-issue teen movie stretch of the film, the scenes of ill-fated public speeches and mild drug freakouts are also the film’s funniest.)
Once they get back to Salem, the film begins to seriously meander. There rarely seems to be much really driving any of these characters, and their battles against authority remain hazy and uninvolving. Aside from Steele’s consistent magnetism, the film rarely shows much of a spark, and even the splashy climax – where the three perform an original routine combining “The Crucible,” Abraham Lincoln, and an interpretive dance set to George Michael’s “Freedom” – comes across more as a politely amusing sketch than the showstopper it clearly was onstage.