“Speech & Debate,” based on the hit 2007 Off-Broadway play by Stephen Karam (who scripted here), is a smart and entertaining, if slight, comedy about three high school misfits who unite to rock the system.
Although the story, which feels a tad past its expiration date, never digs too deeply into its central issues (hypocrisy, loneliness, censorship, finding one’s voice), Dan Harris’ peppy direction and nimble turns by the film’s young leads prevail.
Set in Salem, Ore., (but filmed in Jackson, Miss.), the movie follows wry theater geek Diwata (original cast member Sarah Steele, exceptional); openly gay, new-to-town Howie (Austin P. McKenzie); and uptight muckraker Solomon (Liam James) as they jump-start the campus’ defunct Speech and Debate Club to combat an obstructive circle of parents, teachers and school board members.
But when they crash and burn at a regional speech and debate competition, Diwata (named after a mythological Filipino deity), Howie and Solomon must find another way to be heard. Suffice to say Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” Abraham Lincoln and the George Michael tune “Freedom” all amusingly factor in.
As well-drawn as the three lead roles are, the adults, played by Roger Bart, Kal Penn, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Skylar Astin and Sarah Baker, are one-note. Only Janeane Garofalo, as Diwata’s hard-working mother, is given a bit of life.
‘Speech & Debate’
Rating: PG-13, for mature thematic content involving teen sexuality, substance use and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles. Also on VOD.