Speech & Debate is a Movie about Speech & Debate the Club and Also Speech and Debate the Concept

This is another of those tiny indie movies that Netflix picks up distribution rights to and is basically impossible to gauge the quality of until you try it. Fortunately this one was more Eat With Me than Jenny’s Wedding (which I haven’t written about, but trust me, it’s awful).

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I don’t actually have anything snarky to say about this poster, it’s pretty cute.

Speech & Debate is about three high school seniors in Salem, Oregon and ostensibly follows their struggles for creative and social freedom in their school. That thread kind of gets lost a bit along the way, but we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the teens. There’s Solomon, who works for the school paper and wants to pursue journalism as a career, but the limits placed on what subjects he can write about (anything controversial is off-limits) makes him feel silenced. Next is Diwata, an aspiring actor/singer/etc., who’s frustrated by the school’s decision to alter its production of Once Upon a Mattress to appeal to social conservatism (and is ticked off she didn’t get the lead role). Finally is Howie, openly gay but used to big-city Portland, who feels isolated as a result and wants to start a GSA but is blocked by the school board because it’s “more of a social hour.”

This all works pretty well, and writing it out like that it seems like there’s a pretty clear trajectory for the movie wherein the characters try to find ways to affect change and stick it to The Man. The problem is that the movie never really gives its characters tangible goals until the very end and spends most of the second act on stuff that’s functionally irrelevant to the movie’s plot and themes. I think the movie intends to frame this section, where the characters get involved in Speech & Debate club, as the characters trying to follow their interests in a system-approved manner to less-than-stellar results, but there’s two problems with the execution.

First, the characters aren’t actually pursuing Speech & Debate club in an approved way. They go off to a competition without a faculty sponsor for the club, or even seemingly alerting the faculty of what they’re doing, which results in them getting detention for fraudulently representing the school. Second, their less-than-stellar results don’t really have anything to do with Speech & Debate not fulfilling their desires, but rather because they’re inexperienced with the format and don’t properly prepare. If they’d just gone through the proper channels and learned the rules of the competition, there would have been no problems.

As a result of this, the characters don’t have a meaningful realization about how following the decisions made by those in power isn’t going to work for them, and so their subsequent decision to cause a scene at a school board meeting in order to draw attention to their being stifled doesn’t have nearly as much weight. The only reason they couldn’t have done it right at the start of the movie is because they didn’t know each other well enough, but any plot in the second act could have accomplished that. The movie could have spent half an hour on them at Disney World and the same character work could have been done.

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There’s also a problem with the conclusion to the film in that the way it resolves the characters’ goals is unsatisfying and reveals how low-stakes the whole thing was. Solomon is interviewed by a local news station, getting him recognition in a journalism context and implicitly pressuring the school board to change some things (although it’s never shown that this happens), so he pretty much gets what he was looking for, but it’s more complicated for Howie and Diwata.

It’s implicit that the reason Howie wanted to start a GSA was to find friends and to date, so the fact that there’s no indication the school is going to start a GSA isn’t a problem for him because he made friends and gets a romantic interest. But that romantic interest, as far as I could tell, was someone from the Speech & Debate competition, and the same is true for his friends. This means that while his personal goals were accomplished, the climax in the third act has no bearing on them, and his thematically-relevant goal is left totally ambiguous.

Diwata, on the other hand, never even seems to be that concerned with the alteration to Once Upon a Mattress and is more interested in being the lead in any sort of performing. So in that way her goals are fulfilled by the trio’s performance at the school board, but continuing with Speech & Debate club would have accomplished the same thing. And she has the same issue as Howie, where her personal desires led her to the issue around free expression, and so while that’s the theme of the movie neither character actually has to succeed on that front to be successful. The result is that the movie’s themes are played up and made to seem like the important thing, but they really aren’t. Speech & Debate is torn between telling personal, individual stories and exploring a wider topic and because of that it doesn’t really execute either vision.

So . . . that’s all pretty negative, but the thing about fiction is that it doesn’t have to be thematically and structurally solid to be enjoyable, and Speech & Debate totally was enjoyable. The leads all have strong characterization and are easy to like and root for, and their actors do great work to make them come alive. The movie also has a pretty charming sense of humor that keeps things feeling breezy and entertaining even when the plot is going down pointless detours.

And while I am pretty harsh on the movie’s handling of its themes, I do appreciate that it’s trying. Exploring the world of bureaucratic school decisions and their affects on students is a solid premise, and even if the movie doesn’t dig as deep as it should it still touches on important and engaging ideas.

The movie also does a pretty decent job of incorporating modern technology. The usage of texting feels really natural (there’s a great bit where Diwata texts Solomon’s mom as him and the mom immediately knows it’s not him because of Diwata’s excessive emoji usage) and there was a good sense of how Youtube fame works. The on-screen presentation of Youtube did bug me a bit though since the bar showing the like-to-dislike ratio never fit the videos’ views and like counts. Aside from that, though, the movie had a great sense of style. There were a lot of original-but-not-distracting editing flourishes and musical cues in key places that made things more interesting.

Finally, a little nitpick: when Diwata auditions for the school play, she briefly sings from Hamilton, and then later in the movie Lin-Manuel Miranda shows up but not as himself in an instructional video the leads watch. Apparently in this world Hamilton exists but Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t? It’s kinda weird.

Overall, I’d give Speech & Debate a pretty solid three out of five stars. It’s far from exceptional and has a lot of issues, but it’s got good heart and even if it doesn’t quite work, you can really see what the movie was going for and that helps me forgive its faults.

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