An emotional movie that speaks volumes

Young actress gives performance that is breathtaking in `Speak'


September 05, 2005|By Jonathan Storm | Jonathan Storm,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Made for 1 percent of the cost of HBO's $100 million Rome epic, a little movie televised simultaneously on Showtime and Lifetime at 9 tonight demonstrates that art trumps money every time.

It is Speak, adapted from Laurie Halse Anderson's novel about a high school freshman who turns nearly mute after she's raped at an end-of-summer party. Despite spare dialogue, it shimmers with emotion and finds moments of humor as well. And it features a young woman who could be a big-time movie star, if she wants the job.

This is a story with a history. It was a National Book Award finalist, and six years after publication, was ranked No. 11 on the Aug. 15 Publishers Weekly list of best-selling children's fiction, the most recent one available. The book is widely taught in high schools.

Speak is director Jessica Sharzer's first feature. Hired late in the process by executives who were impressed by a student movie she made, Sharzer, 32, said in a phone interview that she shot the movie in three weeks in 2003.

She took advantage of summer vacation at the Columbus, Ohio, school where much of the action occurs, and of the hiatus of producer Fred Berner (who has helped make such features as Miss Firecracker and Pollock) from Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Her first job was to rework the script.

"The best bet was to stay as close to the novel as I possibly could," she said. "The kids who have read that book five and 10 times because they loved it so much should be relieved to see the book that they remember on the screen."

The movie is reminiscent of one of television's best series, My So-Called Life, which ignited Claire Danes' career. Kristen Stewart stars as Melinda Sordino. She was 13 when the film was made two years ago, just off feature turns as the daughter of Jodie Foster in Panic Room and of Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid in Cold Creek Manor.

Her performance in Speak is breathtaking.

"Something about Kristen really allows for women to project onto her," Sharzer said, "but also men can connect with that character with no problem. I did not want the movie to be a `chick flick.' That's a false category used to suppress some films. There are seriously likable characters who are men in the movie."

Speak has broad appeal beyond the high school audience. Though too mature for young elementary-schoolers, it makes a superior family viewing experience.

D.B. Sweeney plays Melinda's father, Elizabeth Perkins her mother. Both characters are clueless.

"I don't want to know," the mother says to begin the movie, as she comes upon Melinda painting her face with lipstick bars that look like stitches to fasten her mouth. "A chicken pot pie is defrosting on the counter. Dad is not home, and I'm going to therapy."

The dark humor is never gut-busting, always tinged with at least a trace of Melinda's pain.

"You're the most depressed person I ever met," the perky new kid at school says, "and excuse me for saying this, but I think you need professional help."

Through it all, Stewart, with the sparest of dialogue, conveys a broken girl's emotions, primarily confusion. But she is no lifeless rag doll.

"Her face is so open," Sharzer said, "that when you're watching her react to things, you're filling out the inner monologue. Voiceover makes it much funnier, but you lose the impact of the fact that she's not speaking."

And so the voiceover is lightly used, not as pervasive as it was in My So-Called Life. Sharzer was in college and missed that show when it aired on ABC in 1994-1995, but a friend gave her a couple of episodes to watch. "And I've met Winnie Holzman," she said.

Holzman created My So-Called Life, which, in its first episode, finds Danes thinking these classic lines: "School is a battlefield, for your heart" and "The cafeteria is the embarrassment capital of the world. It's like a prison movie."

In Speak, Melinda thinks, "Gym should be illegal."

Showtime will televise the 90-minute movie intact. Sharzer had to cut it to accommodate Lifetime's commercials.

It's obvious why the director had such raves for Stewart. "She can do anything she wants," Sharzer said. "But I don't know if she wants to be a star. She's a pretty private person."


What: Speak

When: Tonight at 9

Where: Showtime, Lifetime

In brief: Popular book for young people becomes a terrific TV movie.

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