Speak is the story of Melinda, a girl starting high school who clearly has some sort of problem. Her best friend from middle school won't talk to her, and she is ostracized by almost everyone else. Only one other girl, Heather, is friendly to her, and but two of them have nothing in common. Melinda hardly talks to anyone, and will go for long stretches of time without speaking. Soon we find out that at a party over the summer, Melinda called the police, and several kids got busted. Eventually we find out the reason why she called the police: she was raped by a senior. So her depression and sullenness start to make sense. We follow her through the school year, as she deals with her new teachers and classes. She has an English teacher (Hair Woman) who lacks confidence and is scared of her students -- she hides behind the hair covering her face. She has a social studies teacher who bullies the students and will not tolerate views different from his own. Her best teacher is in art, who assigns all the students an object to focus on through the whole year. Melinda's object is a tree, and as the year progresses she creates many kinds of trees, all expressing her feelings. It's one of the only ways in which Melinda expresses her feelings, because she hasn't told anyone what happened. Whenever Melinda is feeling bad, she retreats to a closet space she found at school, which she decorates with her art. Eventually her secret comes out, and this puts her on the road to recovery.
Melinda is played by Kristen Stewart, who has been in many movies, most notably Panic Room. She is just right for the part, since her fragile face shows her unhappiness so forcefully and her acting is astonishing. The other characters in the movie are sketched briefly, and there's a slightly jokey aspect to them which helps to offset the underlying serious themes. The teachers especially are played with one note, but since most of them are only tangentially relevant to Melinda's journey, this does not detract from the movie. The portrayal of the whole high school is excellent, with so many details done perfectly. Similarly, the set design of Melinda's home is strikingly done, and is very convincing. The direction by Jessica Sharzer is terrific. On the DVD, she does a commentary with the Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the book on which the movie is based. Sharzer explains many of her decisions about how to make the movie and tells several stories about events on set, so the commentary is illuminating and interesting.
Overall, Speak is surprisingly good. It sensitively portrays Melinda's struggle with what has happened to her, her rather dysfunctional family, and the power of artistic creation to help her recover. Recommended.
Link: Review of Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.