A few minutes into Speech & Debate, a movie about three high school misfits living in a conservative town, I knew just what to expect. And for the most part, my instincts about this off Broadway play-turned-film were spot on: I was able to guess every twist and turn leading up to the cheery ending.
The characters band together against a gang of square adults, unable to empathize with the teens' liberal causes, by forming a Speech & Debate club. The trio of protagonists begin as strangers, and end as supportive friends. The film concludes in an outrageous, choreographed stunt performed in front of the school board.
With its use of tropes like the "Nerd's First Acid Trip" and "Brazen Theater Girl," Speech & Debate is singing every song from the high school movie songbook. All in all, it's predictable — except in one regard. Speech & Debate opens with Howie, one of the movie's young main characters, being solicited for sex online by the school's drama teacher. Now that's not something you see in every high school movie. Had Speech & Debate hewed closer to the original play, and invested in this more peculiar story line, it could have overcome the blur of “been there, done that” predictability.
In the film, each of the three main characters fight for a different pet cause, and band together through their sense of injustice. Solomon (Liam James) is the budding writer blocked from flexing his journalistic muscles by a strictly censored school newspaper. New to Salem, Oregon, Howie (Austin P. McKenzie) is on a crusade to start the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance. And with the film’s most endearing performance, Sarah Steele plays Diwata Jones, the brazen theater nerd who’s outraged after the unwed pregnancy story line in Once Upon a Mattress is removed.
But in Stephen Karam's play, a much darker, more urgent issue holds the characters together. In the stage version, Howie’s tryst with a teacher isn’t a throwaway story line, as it is in the film. Exposing Mr. Healy is the mission that brings these characters together. Instead of supporting three disparate causes, as in the movie, each character holds a piece of information necessary to expose Healy. The inclusion of the Healy plot simply makes more narrative sense, because the characters actually have a reason to rally together.
More importantly, making Healy a central figure underscores the divide between teenagers and adults that runs throughout the film. Sure, the movie paints adults as hypocritical, ignorant villains who make misguided attempts to act in kids’ best interests. But in focusing on Healy’s predatory ways, the play gives that sentiment teeth.
Just as the school board censors Once Upon a Mattress, the filmmakers censored the movie version of Speech & Debate by removing the sex scandal surrounding Healy.
It turns out there is a clear takeaway from this moralistic movie: Leave it to adults to miss the point. Ironically enough, that's just what Speech & Debate was all about.
Speech & Debate is in theaters on Friday, April 7.
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