Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 01/28/04 09:44:39

"The best film I saw at Sundance - by a long way."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2004 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: It was 11:30pm. I'd been denied entry to the party I wanted to go to by some gorilla at the door who didn't care if my name was on a list. I was annoyed - too annoyed to go home and catch some much needed sleep. I needed a distraction. So I went to the most out of the way theater in Park City and caught the 11:30pm screening of a film I'd never heard of - Speak. It would be the greatest time I had at this year's festival.

Melinda Sordino isn't quite the girl she used to be. Once, she was the belle of the ball, a social butterfly who was popular, accepted, and looking a grand future in the face. But then something horrible happened. At a party with her friends, as things were hitting full swing, Melinda ran for a phone and called the police - who then duly busted all the underage drinkers at the party.

Now Melinda is a pariah. Caled 'squealer' by her so-called friends, shunned by all and made to feel about six inches tall, Melinda's name is synonymous with 'scum'. But Melinda doesn't talk about the indicident. She doesn't tell her parents, she doesn't broach the topic with her friends, and she certainly never explained why she called the cops... why would she? Nobody cares anyway.

And that's Melinda's dilemma. Struck with an incident too horrible to talk about, she loses any chance that she might have had to share her pain. Instead, by caring only about themselves, her friends make the pain worse.

So what was 'the incident'? I ain't telling you, though I'll bet every other reviewer will (*cough*David Poland*cough*). The incident itself isn't revealed until past halfway into the movie, because writer/director Jessica Sharzer doesn't want the incident to be primary focus. She doesn't want you feeling 'poor Melinda' from the outset; she wants you to know what her friends know, and what her family knows, and when the reveal comes, she wants it to hit you like it hits them.

Jessica Sharzer is a smart cookie, and this film reveals that early on, and continually throughout its playing time. She nails high school in ways that avoid 'eras'. This film could be set in the 90's, it could be set in the 80's, it could be set right now, but Sharzer avoids putting a sign on the back of thing and instead pushes you to empathize with the people involved, regardless of your own age.

As Melinda, Kristen Stewart doesn't just shine, she burns. In a role where most of what she says doesn't come in the form of words, the teen star of Panic Room and Cold Creek Manor shows that she's far more than just a 'teen actress', delivering a flawless performance. Of course it helps that the script is magnificent, the director at the top of her game and that the cast around her is actually made up of teenagers, rather than twenty-something actors dressed down to look like high school kids.

Elizabeth Perkins, as Melinda's mom, joins in to deliver a similarly compelling performance, which is all the more extraordinary when you learn she shot all of her scenes in three days. You've gotta love indie production schedules, eh?

But the real cap on this fabulous show is none other than Steve Zahn. At a time when Zahn is cashing in with big budget crap on a regular basis, it's great to see him not only appear in something small and meaningful, but also in a way that gives the piece true humor and heart. Zahn, as Melinda's art teacher, delivers the funniest lines in the film, but never as the 'goofball' we've come to associate him with of late. Zahn's ability to portray emotions and drama bursts to the fore in Speak, and it's no overplaying of the actor's impact to tell you that grown men wept during this film.

And I'm not talking about a little tear here and there, I'm talking about full-on, loud tear extraction.

There are so many films made for teenagers that dumb down to a level below what teenagers are truly capable of, that when a smart, well-made film rolls along the first instinct is to classify it as Ashton Kutcher fodder. But Speak is so far above that level as to almost require its very own pigeonhole.

Some may well compare it to such teen melodrama as My So-Called Life, and it certainly has echoes of that kind of production around it, but this is far and away not a 'teen movie'. Speaking as one of an audience full of grown adults, many of whom haven't seen the inside of a high school for decades, it crosses all demographics, all races, all genders and delivers its commentary on life as a teenager in a way that John Hughes at the peak of his powers could not have matched.

If it sounds like I'm rattling on endlessly about this film, that's because it deserves to be rattled on about endlessly. From start to finish, lead to co-stars, director to writers, this is the kind of film experience that reminds you that it doesn't matter how many stars are around, or how much money is spent on the film - a truly memorable indie film kicks the hell out of anything a studio can put together.

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