'Speak' Makes Its Story Heard

Mr. Freeman (Steve Zahn) and Melinda (Kristen Stewart) admire the art

It's rare to find a film that accurately captures the uncertainty and alienation of the first weeks of high school, the desire for communication and companionship or the extraordinary difficulty of speaking up when everyone else is against you. For a film to accomplish any one of these things without devolving into melodrama or after-school special self parody is an unusual event, yet Jessica Sharzer's "Speak" manages to weave all three together into a poignant and inspiring narrative. Based on Laurie Halsh Anderson's award-winning young adult novel, "Speak" is the story of a smart and loving high school girl who has become silent and withdrawn in the wake a traumatic incident, struggling to face the past so she can go on with her future.

In the aftermath of an incident at a party near the end of junior high, Melinda Sordino (Kristen Stewart) finds herself entering high school with the scars of her trauma still fresh in her mind, a school set against her by rumors of what took place and no friends to support her. Unable to confide in her parents or anyone else, Melinda becomes largely silent, drifting through the miasma of freshman year hoping to escape notice. Hiding beside the inane chatter of new girl Heather (Allison Siko) - one of the few students who doesn't know Melinda's history - and escaping to a deserted storage closet the rest of the time, Melinda attempts to fade into the background.

But when Mr. Freeman, the unorthodox and authority flouting art teacher (Steve Zahn), helps her find an outlet through her artwork, Melinda begins to express herself again. As the memories of the party continue to haunt her, Melinda finds her voice through art, and as history threatens to repeat itself with one of her former friends, Melinda must finally dig down and find the courage to break her silence. By speaking out and facing the truth of her past, Melinda is finally able to return to the self she'd left behind. In the telling, the incident becomes word, a problem that can now be dealt with rather than a nightmare whose blame had fallen to the victim.

Melinda lost in thought

In her feature debut, Ms. Sharzer has crafted a brilliant adaptation of novel that some may have deemed impossible to put down on celluloid. Working with a protagonist who's silent throughout much of the film, Ms. Sharzer keeps the film moving by incorporating flashbacks of the fateful night, letting us gradually realize what Melinda has gone through as the incident unfolds piece by piece. Woven seamlessly into the narrative, the flashbacks are a glimpse of Melinda's memories, assailing us with the images that haunt her. As each new piece of the night's puzzle is revealed, Melinda's lapses into silence speak volumes, her distant gaze telling of things that she cannot bring herself to put into words.     

Many adult actors can only dream of being able to convey such depth of character without saying a word, but Ms. Stewart completely inhabits Melinda with a quiet ease. Through subtle shifts in expression or body language, she gives voice to Melinda with rarely a sound. From the charming, vivacious girl at the party to the shell Melinda had become to her eventual re-emergence, Ms. Stewart embodies each facet of her character with equal aplomb, quietly turning in a star-making performance. Mr. Zahn also seems to have found his niche, putting a serious face on his usual antics and toning them down just enough to convey responsibility without losing the good natured rebelliousness that makes him endearing.    

The humanity of its characters is one of the reasons "Speak" works so well. Fleshed out by solid performances and intuitive writing, they feel like regular people, facing many of the same insecurities and adolescent torments we all went through. We can genuinely connect with these characters, making their struggles even more affecting. The film enables us to understand the trauma of Melinda's experience and her desire to put it behind her - her wish to forget. But to forget is to back down, to open the door for history to repeat itself - as her former friend's endangerment makes painfully clear - and sometimes one has to take a stand. "Speak" is about finding that voice inside us - breaking the silence that too often binds us and conquering our fear.     

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