Movie review: Speak (2004)

Speak (2004) is an American independent movie directed by Jessica Sharzer, based on the New York Times bestseller and the Printz Honour winning novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson. Although like most movies it deviates slightly from the book, it stays faithful to the original story. It stars Kristen Stewart in a breakout role as troubled teenager, Melinda Sordino, Steve Zahn as the free-thinking and understanding art teacher, Elizabeth Perkins and D.B.Sweeney as Melinda’s concerned, but overworked and busy parents. The film was screened at the Sundance Festival and was critically acclaimed. It is a moving story of a traumatized girl, battling her inner demons and finally breaking out of her cocoon.

Melinda Sordino is a happy and a normal fourteen year old, who is looking forward to a wonderful four years at high school with her best friends. However, her world falls apart when she gets raped at a house party she attends with her friends that summer. Traumatized, she calls the police but she’s unable to say anything to anyone. Since no one knows the truth about what happened, everyone, including her best friends, ostracize her and give her the tag of “squealer”. The teachers at Merryweather High School are also distant and unapproachable: from the terrifying Mr. Neck who constantly bullies Melinda, to the English teacher (who Melinda refers to as the Hair woman) who refuses to make eye contact with her students. Even her parents, though concerned about the sudden change in their daughter, are too busy to figure out what went wrong. Melinda goes through hell every single day because every time she tries to tell anyone, her tongue freezes up. Her only solace is in Art class which is taught by the friendly and rebellious Mr. Freeman. Mr. Freeman is the typical idealistic art teacher, who is more of a free spirit than a systematic teacher. He is the only one who gets through to Melinda. She immerses herself into her art, turning an abandoned closet into her studio and “escape room”. She slowly becomes accustomed to her death-like existence, expressing herself only through her art. However things take a turn for the worse when Melinda’s ex-best friend starts dating the boy who raped her. Thus, Melinda comes to a point where she has no other choice but to fight her fear and speak up. Slowly, the girl comes out of her shell and learns to accept what happened and move on, rather than try to pretend it never happened and suffer the mental trauma alone, every single day.

This movie is a small budget movie with a very big heart. Not an average teen movie, it handles the sensitive issue of rape in a very moving manner. It is not a story about a revolution; the heroine is not a fighter who champions the cause of battered women. Rather, it is a very true interpretation of what really happens to young people who are faced with a terrible situation, early in their lives. Victims of rape are often too scared and ashamed to talk to anyone about what really happened. As a result, all this pain gets trapped up inside and leads to depression. In Melinda’s case, depression led to her becoming mute. Narrated in first person, it is a story told by Melinda herself, who doesn’t say much but thinks a lot. Her blunt remarks and sarcastic comments are rife with dark humour.  Even though, throughout the movie, silence speaks for itself, the screenplay is taut and the dialogue is crisp. The scene involving Mr. Neck’s “debate” class is especially engaging.  It is an insight on how the education system still employs people with prejudices and how this does no good to growing minds. The film sheds light on the adolescent need to be accepted by their peers. This compulsive need leads people to become manipulative and gamble away years of friendship. This movie does a very good job in bringing forward important issues to the audience. At the same time, it is not preachy and pretentious.

Kristen Stewart, of course, is the reason why this movie is so powerful. Being only 14 when she was cast for this role, Kristen plays Melinda with stunning maturity. Her blank face and her soulless eyes reflect the pain she’s going through with gut wrenching accuracy. She does a wonderful job, using very few words to communicate, leaving it to her eyes and body language. Your heart leaps out to her every time she tries to open her mouth but closes it without saying anything. Kristen Stewart carries this movie on her shoulders and pulls it off with panache. Also worth a mention is Steve Zahn’s performance as the inspiring teacher Mr. Freeman. He successfully embodies the tortured artist who hates the school policies but recognizes and encourages talent in the youngsters. Steve Zahn carries off his role brilliantly, becoming the teacher we all wish we had. But his best moment is undoubtedly the scene when his eyes fill up with tears of wonder and admiration upon seeing Melinda’s drawings in the janitor’s closet. The rest of the cast provided excellent support: including Michael Angarano as the Dave Petrakis, Melinda’s smart and outspoken lab partner who later becomes her friend and Allison Siko as Heather, the quintessential “wannabe”, a self absorbed social climber.

Kudos to the director Jessica Sharzer who has done a stellar job in bringing out the best in the young actors and actresses. The direction along with the camera work is simply amazing. The director wonderfully conveys Melinda’s thoughts to the audience by the subtle use of metaphors, props and lighting. The very first scene when Melinda draws stitches across her mouth, the slow walk back home alone after the party and the hospital scene show amazing acting, direction and camera work. The scene where Melinda smells an apple and reminisces about her childhood is also very touching: a symbol of how a girl lost her innocence at an early age and would give anything to go back to the carefree happy days of childhood. Another amazing scene is the one when the janitor closes the shutter when Melinda’s thinking about the suffragettes, symbolically showing how she feels trapped. The close ups of Stewart’s face and eyes, reflecting the fear and the sense of defeat moves the audience. A special mention must also be given to the make up team in creating Melinda’s look: bleak with shadows around the eyes and chapped lips. The background score is very good, especially in the flashback scenes and towards the end where the rousing music tugs at your heart strings. The only flaw is the slight lull around the middle of the movie where it tends to meander a tiny bit.

Speak is a well produced and well acted, powerful and inspiring movie. A movie recommended for both parents and teenagers, it doesn’t tell you how you should live your life. It is merely the story of a girl, a child actually, who needs someone to get her through the worst time of her life but doesn’t know how to call for help. It is a story of finding one’s self and facing one’s fears as running away or denial is never the answer. It is a movie that, along with occasional moments of satire, inspires young people to stop bottling up their emotions: to face reality and to SPEAK OUT!

Rashmi Rajshekhar

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