Taking a stageplay to the screen is often an uneasy transposition; for every Glengarry Glen Ross or My Fair Lady—films that not only take the leap gracefully but even improve upon their source material in the new medium—there’s rides like the adaptation of Rent, a film which had the stupefying effect of somehow making its 1980s East Village setting look gray and lifeless.
Speech & Debate has somewhat smaller shoes to fill than these highly acclaimed plays. Although Stephen Karam’s story of three outcasts in a backwards town has earned its share of accolades since its New York debut in 2007, it is not necessarily a staple of the American theater canon. Nevertheless, a decade later, and with a Tony Award under his belt for his play The Humans, Karam and director Dan Harris have brought the story to life anew.
There is a lot of heart and laughter within, particularly due to the efforts of the three lead actors: Liam James as the sheepish, budding journalist, Solomon; Austin McKenzie as a young gay man attempting to start a GSA at his small town school, while carrying on an affair with one of the teachers; and Sarah Steele as the Broadway-obsessed, gifted, and boisterous Diwata. Steele is particularly fun to watch throughout, as she deftly endows easily the most outrageous of these three characters with moments of nuance and vulnerability.
For all the laughs and poignancy, though, there are copious moments of clumsy filmmaking. More than anything, the narrative is encumbered by a strange lack of energy. Except Diwata, most of the characters we meet ride a fine line between laconic mumbling and terse enunciation, with the only allowance being for the archetypal, red-faced “crazy neighbor” character we meet in the opening scene. For each visually-induced chuckle, like when text and music sync to highlight Diwata’s elation at playing “ALL-OF-THE-ROLES” in The Crucible, there are equally uncomfortable stabs at humor, like the awkwardly prolonged attempt to elicit a cheap laugh at the expense of a character in a wheelchair.
Speech & Debate works as a play because of, aside from the obvious asset of Karam’s sharp ear for dialogue, its ability to tell so much story using so few tools. Four actors, on a sparse stage, unravel the corruption and hypocrisy that their tiny town is built upon. The film, on the other hand, takes its time chugging through a sudden series of uninteresting obstacles—Diwata’s car gets towed in Portland; Howard slips some molly into a beer that he gives to Solomon—and coming of age cliches: a dressing-in-the-mirror montage; the fact that the main female antagonist to Diwata’s artistic ambitions is (of course!) skinny, blonde, and popular; the subplot of Solomon’s parents splitting up. There’s even an utterance, right before the trio’s final defiant act at a school board meeting, of the line “I have a bad feeling about this.”
At its best moments, the film is a touching tribute to awkward kids on the cusp of achieving agency, to the moments in life when one is beginning to sense that there is more to the world beyond the city limits. But, in padding out the fairly succinct play into a feature-length movie, the filmmakers dabble too much in cliché. On the measuring stick of stage-to-film adaptations, Speech & Debate will probably not stand out among the best, although it is, at times, a fun ride anyway.