A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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."
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?
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