What could’ve been easily an After School Special knock-off or an HBO Families In Crisis scare tome… or a standard Lifetime moral play, SPEAK turned out to quite moving. Stewart plays Melinda, a young girl alone. Once she had wonderful friendships, but (as we learn in flashbacks) she had a falling out after calling 911 to break up a summer time party – a party where, it’s revealed later, something so traumatic has happened that Melinda locks it deep inside her. Now she walks hurriedly through the halls, hollow eyed, holding her books tight to her chest to keep the taunting kids from knocking them away. Her parents are too wrapped up in their own worlds to notice their daughter is depressed, her teachers think she’s trouble, and a new friend (the new girl in school, who isn’t aware of Melinda’s troubles) who cares more about expanding her pool of friends than actually bonding. The only one around who shows any interest in her is the rebellious Art teacher, who notices not only her budding talent, but the troubled soul that needs to be released through expression.
Stewart delivers an impressive performance, one that eclipses (hehe, I’m so clever) her now moppy turns as the popular but limiting Bella Swan of the Twilight series. Watching Stewart move through this world of pain and secrets, she makes you want to reach out and take her hand, to sit her down and let her pour out her feelings, so she can once again smile. And what a moment it is when that happens at the end of the movie, when she finally reveals her inner self through her art. Steve Zahn, as well, gives a top performance as the Art teacher who helps Melinda free her “voice.”
For a Lifetime movie, SPEAK lead the trend away from the literal woman-in-peril tomes that became iconic for the cable channel, moving the network towards more meaningful, less heavy handed projects [The film was picked up from the festival circuit by both Lifetime and Showtime to be premiered simultaneously]. The direction by Jessica Sharzer, and screenplay, co-written with Annie Young Frisbie, is subtle but hard, and never retreats to a safer route. They don’t go for weeps or shocks, or hit on the trendy high school clichés. The characters aren’t stereotypes or caricatures, but fully realized people whom we could all relate to, in one way or another. The nasty girls aren’t just Mean Girls whose bitchiness comes off as so-cool-you-wanna-be-her, but rather reflects an honest, fully developed character who has her own real worries.
Sharzer is ther kind of director Stewart needs to work with more often. Stewart does a great job as the inward tortured soul, so great that she is asked to do that very role in just about every movie she’s in now. She’s a fine actor, with obvious talent and charisma. She just needs directors with more ambition and talent, themselves, who draw out better performances, like this one in SPEAK.
SPEAK is the kind of movie that I will let my two girls watch when they get a little older. Forget Kristen Stewart’s tortured Bella Swan of the TWILIGHT SAGA. Her portrayal as the individual, but troubled Melinda Sordino is the kind of character teen girls should really take to for inspiration.