Thursday, April 23, 2009

Speak (Showtime, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched an unexpectedly interesting movie I’d recorded from Lifetime, a 2004 Showtime production called Speak which they probably revived because of the new-found popularity of the film’s young star, Kristen Stewart (thanks to her role in the big teen-vampire franchise Twilight), who here plays Melinda Sordino, a high-school freshman who shows up for her first day in a state of virtual catatonia. At first it seems like it’s just going to be another alienated-teenager movie — the moment she shows up for school she earns the instant displeasure of social-studies teacher Mr. Neck (Robert John Burke) for being late and having an “attitude” — indeed, as the film progresses Mr. Neck turns out to be a low-grade fascist who turns his class lectures into tirades against people of color because his firefighter son was denied a promotion in favor of a person of color (and when one African-American in the class has the temerity to say, “Maybe he was passed over because he wasn’t good enough,” Mr. Neck reacts violently and says, “That’s my son you’re talking about!”).

A number of Melinda’s other teachers turn out to be weirdos of one sort or another — including the English teacher (Leslie Lyles), whom Melinda nicknames “Hairwoman” because she’s usually facing away from the students to write things on the blackboard (and in a nifty running gag she’s always running out of room on the blackboard and has to make the last few letters of whatever she’s writing much narrower than the rest) and even when she is facing the class, her hippie-style long hair is covering much of her weatherbeaten face; Ms. Keen (Kimberly Kish), the biology teacher whom Melinda can’t stand because of her relentlessly chirpy voice; and the one teacher Melinda actually bonds with, art teacher Mr. Freeman (Steve Zahn), one of those liberal teachers who wants to “relate” to his students and shake them into some creativity.

Speak differs from most alienated high-school-student movies in that even before the school year began, Melinda developed a reputation that has caused most of the class — including her former friends from her junior-high years — to denounce her as a “snitcher” and make oinking noises when she appears; the one fellow student who reaches out to her early on, Rachel Bruin (Hallee Hirsh), a transfer student from La Jolla who never lets Melinda (or us) forget it — this movie is somewhat ambiguous as to where it’s supposed to be taking place but it was filmed in Columbus, Ohio — cuts her dead when she realizes Melinda’s friendship is only going to hold her back from being accepted by the school’s “Marthas,” the social-climber clique (“Martha” as in “Stewart,” I presume). What she did to earn this reputation we learn in dribs and drabs from the flashbacks inserted into the story by writers Jessica Sharzer (who also directed) and Annie Young Frisbie (adapting a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson); Melinda was invited to a wild party with a lot of drinking and opportunities for sex, and Melinda was the subject of advances by hunky, athletic B.M.O.C. Andy Evans (Eric Lively), who got her into his Jeep determined to have sex with her and refused to take no for an answer.

Once that’s finally revealed, midway through the film, we realize that Melinda’s unwillingness to speak in public (or much in private, either) is due to lingering trauma not only from the rape but also from the fact that she never reported it — it was why she called the cops on that party but once they actually arrived the scene got so confused that she fled instead of remaining behind to swear out a complaint against Andy — and among the traumas she’s had to endure through the school year is seeing Andy and Rachel dating and wondering if she should bother to tell her former friend just what a creep the guy is. Melinda’s home life isn’t much of a refuge, either; her dad, Jack Sordino (D. B. Sweeney), is unemployed and her mom Joyce (Elizabeth Perkins) is supporting the family through a beauty shop she co-owns, and when she’s at home (which isn’t often) she looks pretty much like a space cadet herself. About the only allies Melinda has are the art teacher and her biology-class lab partner, Dave Petrakis (Michael Angarano), who’s nice-looking, sweet, intelligent, daring (he tells off Mr. Neck during one of his racist tirades) and altogether lovable, but Melinda rebuffs his efforts to date her.

The film’s script is full of felicitous touches — including having the English teacher give a lecture on symbolism in Hawthorne (when one student in the class questions whether her interpretations of Hawthorne’s symbolism have anything to do with what Hawthorne intended, she gets as defensive as Mr. Neck and says, “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Hawthorne!” — suggesting that school is, among other things, a place where teachers go to work out their own neuroses while their students suffer through it all), the irony being that the movie itself is full of subtle but unmistakable symbolism in details like the various ways Melinda gets to school (sometimes she braves the school bus, sometimes she walks, sometimes she bikes and sometimes daddy drives her) reflecting her various emotional moods.

Eventually the film appears to be moving towards a happy, or at least not too miserable, resolution — the school year ends and Melinda plans to take art courses in the summer; she gets the work she’s been hiding in a storage closet on the school grounds that’s been her hideout when the pressures of the environment got too intense; and her art teacher is there to encourage here — when suddenly [spoiler alert!] Andy confronts her and demands that she go through the entire school telling everybody that she lied and he really didn’t rape her (“I can have any girl I want — willingly!” he thunders at her, along with the inevitable, “You’re not even attractive!”), and she retaliates by throwing some sort of liquid in his face that blinds him, or at least seems to be doing so — and one can’t help but wonder what kind of trouble she’s going to be in now and how he’ll be able to dance away from any responsibility for her violation now that he can claim to be the injured party.

Speak is quite a good movie, well directed — unlike a lot of people at this level of filmmaking, Jessica Sharzer actually has an eye for artful compositions, though they remain totally appropriate to the story and don’t call attention to themselves — and also quite well cast (indeed, seeing Kristen Stewart here makes me more curious about Twilight than I was earlier) — and though much of it is from the grab-bag of alienated-teen movie clichés, they’re at least deployed effectively and for most of this movie one is genuinely uncertain about how it’s all going to turn out. A little gem!