By Evan Hancock (Kansas)
Thoughts on Speech and Debate from a Debate & Forensics champ
(who is also a snob about movies)
Hi, my name is Evan and I just graduated from high school. I was pretty successful in Speech and Debate throughout my career – to avoid looking like a tool, I won’t list every medal I ever won but I would like to point out that during my senior year, my partner and I won our division at state debate (policy debate, obviously – the superior kind for super cool people). I also placed at state forensics in extemp and impromptu, so I know my stuff decently well when it comes to Speech and Debate.
I was sitting in an airport one day on a 6 hour layover and my debate partner unexpectedly texted me about this movie she had caught on Netflix during a day off – Speech and Debate, it was called. She said it wasn’t great, but the subject matter appealed to her. A week and change later, I’m going to watch the movie myself. I texted my partner to let her know that I was diving in, and her exact text was, “You’ll probably regret but it’s worth it.”
*DISCLAIMER* I don’t know every single event! I’m a speaker, so I have limited experience with acting. Also, Speech and Debate is not the same in every state. Each place has different events, so I might think something from the film is unrealistic that is actually just what forensics is like in another state. Also, I’m going to write this as a sort of stream of consciousness. By reading, you accept all liability for stress caused by bad grammar or spelling.
As I watch the film, I am going to jot down bullet points on what I’m thinking. It’ll be like live-tweeting, except less stupid!
– This is shot like a TV show for some reason?
– Diwata is completely unlikeable. She’s exactly what an out-of-touch older person thinks a theater nerd sounds like.
– The meeting scene is just obscene. The actors playing Solomon and Diwata clearly have never done Duo Interp, because they cannot do a scene where they interrupt each other.
– HOLY SHIT DIWATA IS LITERALLY BLACKMAILING HOWIE INTO JOINING THE CLUB! Like, seriously. She just brings up how he’s meeting a teacher at night in public.
– The fact that the debate topic just happens to coincide with their situation screams “THE WRITER IS A HAAAAAAAACK.”
– Using The Crucible as a symbol of the struggles the students are facing is p a t h e t i c. That sounds like something a sophomore in high school would write. You know the type of kid I’m talking about: that little spaz who just found out about McCarthyism and Arthur Miller and now thinks he’s a groundbreaking thinker.
– The Oksana character is actually interesting. I want to see a bleak-ass movie about her.
– At about 37:45, Howie has a scene where he has to tell a lie. It looks like the director said, “OK take 43. Act like you’re really, really, really obviously lying.”
– The kids from Holy Ghost high are hilarious, but don’t belong in an actual film. The chant they do is very accurate to actual forensics though.
– What are the two kids in persuasive speaking doing standing next to each other at podiums?
– I was never an actor, but I’m pretty sure that the kid who did “Sophie’s choice” would be disqualified just like Diwata was (or at least severely marked down) for tossing his jacket, effectively using it as a prop.
– The LD scene with the motormouth kid conflates LD and Policy debate. I’ve never done LD, but I’m pretty sure they talk a little slower in that event. The incoherent speed-rambling does match what bad policy debaters from larger schools do frequently, though.
– After the party scene, the movie is left with only one likable main character – Solomon. Diwata is incredibly annoying, and Howie is legitimately stupid, disreputable, dangerous scum. I hope he gets hit by a bus at some point during this movie for drugging an unaware teenager.
– Well the pool scene was literally meaningless except for the two boys to say “we give up” and Diwata so say “don’t plz”
– The principal is just objectively right in the scene at about 57:00. I don’t know how we’re supposed to sympathize with the speech team.
– In the principal’s office scene, he said that the bills they racked up were $937, right? And Howie has a job in a pizza place. Assuming he makes at least $7.50/hr, which is what I made when I first started my shitty restaurant job, he alone could have that paid off after just over 6 weeks working 20 hours. If he’s working over the summer, 20 hours should be no problem and he could put half of his money towards the bills over about 12 weeks of summer. Now that Diwata’s mom has insisted that she go back to working at Olive Garden, the two of them could have it paid off before the end of June.
– The “food baby – too soon” joke at about 1:00:02 is actually funny writing, which I didn’t expect from this film. The only problem is that it renders Diwata’s pregnancy scare utterly meaningless. I’m guessing that subplot was supposed to have at least a little weight, but it’s just been pulled out from under it.
– I like Diwata’s mom, she’s one out of three sympathetic characters in this film.
– On that point, more than an hour into the movie, the only characters I don’t hate are Solomon, Diwata’s mom, Oksana, and the principal. Those last two are small enough bit parts that they hardly even count.
– Diwata’s obsession with The Crucible is starting to border on unhealthy.
– At about 1:10:00, the scene between Diwata and her mom in the restroom is actually well written and entertaining!
– Aaaaaaaand it’s immediately followed up by a second song from Diwata that sounds like it was written by a 9-year-old.
– Ok. Right now I’m about 1:15:00 in and a boring scene is going on where Diwata is asking for advice from a lunatic so I’m researching the writer. His name is Stephen Karam and according to this article (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/27/theater/stephen-karams-plays-treat-anguish-as-a-laughing-matter.html) he was 35 in 2015. How is that possible? This play opened in 2007 according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_%26_Debate_(play)) so Karam would have been 27 or so? How, then, did he churn out something that sounds like it was written by someone in middle school. Of course, I’m not familiar with the play script so all of these issues could have come from his reworking into a screenplay at 36 or 37 years of age. In which case, he became the worst type of screenwriter; the out-of-touch adult looking for ways to appeal to “the cool kidz.”
– Wow I like “Deus Ex Arnie.” Of course Diwata was able to somehow bribe or otherwise coerce the janitor into playing her backing tracks and do the lights.
– Oh god. I just realized that Karam must have crammed in all of these Hamilton references as he adapted his script into a screenplay. That is so fucking cringy it makes me want to close my Netflix tab right now.
– That ending screams “There was another 20 minutes of play left but I have to wrap it up before the movie gets too much longer than 1:30:00.”
– Of course there’s a fucking post-credits scene.
– This is a seriously minor nitpick but it drives me nuts. In the post-credits scene, several of Diwata’s videos are shown to have a high ratio of dislikes to likes (ex. “THE SOUND OF MUSIC – Sophomore Year” with 5 likes and 13 dislikes). Despite this fact, the like bar is about 95% blue. Now, if I’m not mistaken, it’s quite expensive for films to license properties like the real emojis they displayed in this film, as well as the actual layout of YouTube. If they’re going to license something like that to make the movie more believable to the hip youngsters, wouldn’t it be reasonable for someone to make sure that the movie keeps the websites they’re licensing accurate? Like making the YouTube like bar work properly? That would have taken an editor 5 minutes or less to fix, but nobody caught that fuckup at any point during the production. Just another example of a film made by out-of-touch, older people failing to relate to young people.
Ok! Now that that’s over, I guess I’ll leave my final thoughts here:
Speech and Debate is not a good film. Because I’m not familiar with all of his work, I’m not going to call Stephen Karam a hack – all I’m saying is that this script wouldn’t be out of place in a high school writing competition. As a film, its two biggest problems are these: 67% of the main characters are completely unlikeable, and the script’s use of The Crucible as a stand-in for the character’s struggles is somehow offensively ham-fisted and utterly boring at the same time. The final nail in this film’s coffin is its title. Speech and Debate is relevant during the first half of the movie, then falls out of the picture completely.
As it turns out, the Speech and Debate team is only a vehicle to get the protagonists into trouble, then give them an excuse to perform the big musical number at the end. Early in the film, one of the main characters pushes for his high school to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance. He is shot down by the school board president, who tells him that there’s no need for a GSA – he should just join the “recycling club” instead. Obviously, this character is written to be bigoted and comically dumb. However, his words become something of an ironic parallel to the film’s problems, because after the film ended, his words echoed in my memory.
I pictured myself as him, telling the film’s writer and director “Why does this film need to be about a Speech and Debate team? Couldn’t it be about a chess club or a singing water polo team instead?” It’s almost as if this movie was created specifically for forensics dorks like me to watch and think “Oh wow I’m just like Diwata. I’m so oppressed and stuff. #relatable.” Corner the nerd market without putting any effort into a movie that’s actually about speech and debate. Now that this thought has occurred to me, I can’t shake the feeling that I have been cheated out of an hour and a half of my life by this pandering piece of tripe. All this film does is create a TV-drama-style “teens overcoming difficulty” story with Speech and Debate tacked on as a gimmick, not a unique selling point.
TL;DR: Speech and Debate gets 5 out of 5 stars. That’s the activity, of course; it helps students build character and important skills. Speech and Debate (2017), the movie, gets 0 out of 5 stars because it didn’t even try. Do I regret watching this film like my partner said I might? No. If anything positive can be said about it, it’s this: The movie was entertaining despite being rather bad. However, I still don’t think the movie had a lot of artistic merit.
TL;DR was TL;DR: MOVIE NOT GOOD STILL KINDA FUNNY THO