Speech & Debate

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Speech & Debate Movie Poster Image
Coming-of-age tale confronts teen issues; sex and drinking.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 115 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Importance of being true to who you are, of standing up to injustice and intolerance in all forms. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The three misfit teenagers find ways to stay true to themselves in the face of adult hypocrisy and intolerance. 

Violence

A bully's recurring move is to knock the smartphones out of the hands of other students. 

Sex

A gay teen who has just moved to a new town arranges through texting to have anonymous sex with an older man who is later revealed to be the high school drama teacher. This same teacher later tells his class that teen pregnancy is "trashy," as a pregnant teen student in the room looks ashamed. The female lead character thinks she might be pregnant. She tells her friends how she lost her virginity, and how the boy she had sex with wanted nothing to do with her in the days and weeks that followed. The high school drama club wants to put on a production of a play called "Once Upon a Mattress," but the school board and some of the town's citizens object to how the story features an unmarried pregnant woman. Talk of how the disgraced mayor of their town would "sex up interns." Reference made to an old MTV show in which a nerd is discovered to be "well endowed" after bullies pull his pants down. 

Language

A teen girl writes "FU" on an audition sheet when she learns she didn't get the part she wanted. F-word shortened to "f" in a sentence. "Son of a bitch." "Crap sandwich." "Ass." "Boner." "Hell." 

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens go to a club and drink heavily. One boy becomes extremely drunk, gets kicked out of the club, throws up outside, falls onto muddy ground, speaks in an incoherent manner, then passes out in a hotel room. Upon entering a hotel room, teens find bottles of alcohol free for the taking and drink outside by the pool. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Speech & Debate is a 2017 movie in which three misfit teens band together to take on the hypocrisy of the adults around them. Based on the 2008 play by Stephen Karam, the movie fearlessly confronts a wide array of topics of concern for contemporary teens: online sexual predators, teen pregnancy, internet troll hate, censorship and freedom of speech in high school, viral videos, and growing up in general. While these characters are not saints -- they binge-drink and get sloppily drunk, talk of having unprotected sex, and have anonymous sex with adults in a nearby park -- they are also shown to be works in progress who find ways to stay true to themselves and to learn from their mistakes, despite the double-standards of the adults and the snubs from their peers. There is some profanity, including "FU" written on a school audition sheet, and a song in which one of the characters repeatedly calls her drama teacher a "crap sandwich." 

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What's the story?

In SPEECH & DEBATE, Howie (Austin McKenzie) is a gay teen who has just moved to Salem, Oregon from Portland and wants to start a Gay Student Union at his new high school, but is turned down by the school board. This same school board forces the school's drama club to sanitize their production of a play in which a woman has a child out of wedlock, much to the chagrin of Diwata (Sarah Steele), an aspiring actress and dedicated vlogger. Solomon (Liam James) wants to write hard-hitting pieces of investigative journalism for the school paper, but is made to write fluff pieces by the faculty advisor instead. Frustrated by the double-standards and conservatism of most of the adults around them, these three try to find an outlet for their frustrations by starting a speech & debate club. Through this attempt and the misadventures that follow, Austin, Diwata, and Solomon forge a tight bond, and must learn to stand up for what they believe in and fight for their convictions. 

Is it any good?

Based on a 2008 off-Broadway play, this movie seems determined to cover every issue of concern for teenagers under the sun, and then some. Adult hypocrisy, teachers who are sexual predators, fuddy-duddy school boards, homophobia, internet hate and humiliation, bullying, teen pregnancy, underage drinking, freedom of speech, the difficulties in being a gay teenager new to a small town -- these are all addressed. It takes these issues on with a fearlessness not seen since perhaps the John Hughes teen movies of the 80s. And while not perfect, Speech & Debate does an admirable job of capturing the adventure and apprehension that so typifies older teens as they have their first-time experiences with the complexities of adulthood. And there are also some very funny moments: Parents who grew up in the '80s and '90s will love the cheesy production values of the Speech & Debate VCR tape the lead characters watch. 

When creating teen characters, many writers make the mistakes of either making teens too young, too old, or too one-dimensional. Speech & Debate manages to avoid these traps, despite falling into the trap in which nearly every adult (with the exception of Janeane Garofolo's character, who, in a memorable scene, puts drama-queen Diwata in her place) is a hypocrite, dumb, square, or hopelessly conservative. And while the three teen lead characters are developed and believable, there are times when Sarah Steele -- who plays the drama club ham of the bunch -- forsakes depth and nuance in favor of doing an imitation of Bette Midler's character in Beaches. And the constant striving to attain teen realism and credibility, either through the endless litany of teen topics addressed or emoji-laden text exchanges, becomes tiresome. Nonetheless, compared to so many weaker attempts to convey the proverbial teenage wasteland, the good far outweighs the bad. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about coming-of-age movies. What are the ways in which Speech & Debate fits the genre, and how does it compare to similar movies?

  • How does the movie portray teenagers and the issues they face? Was it realistic? Why or why not?

  • This movie was based on a play. What would be the challenges in adapting a play into a movie?

Movie details

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