Directors: Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling
Actors: Kristen Stewart ( The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), Michael Angarano and Robert John Burke
Set against the backdrop of what’s been coined the Olympics of oratory, nonfiction film “Speak” takes viewers on an intimate and emotional journey, through the paralyzing grip of the fear of public speaking, and into the Toastmasters International Speech Contest finals, which serves as a reminder that in order to connect on a human level one’s tale need not necessarily be sensational, but merely sincere.
“Speak” recalls movies like “Spellbound,” “Make Believe: The Battle To Become the World’s Best Teen Magician” and ventriloquist documentary “Dumbstruck,” all of which centered around specific subcultural contests, and tracked contestants through their preparations for the big event. For fans of those films, the enormously sympathetic figures in “Speak” will create a strong emotional pull. Its half dozen main subjects include an out-of-work father of six with an amputated foot; an architect turned actor with an incurable heart disease; a university professor who pulled herself up out of poverty; a single mom living with lupus; and a retiree who reconnected with his high school crush after more than five decades.
There are a couple other interviewees as well — “Hardball” host Chris Matthews (an ex-Toastmaster member himself), disgraced college TV sportscaster Brian “Boom Goes the Dynamite!” Collins, and Caite Upton, the Miss South Carolina Teen USA pageant participant whose rambling, nonsensical response to a geographical education question achieved an unfortunate national infamy — but these chats are mostly front-loaded, and not particularly well integrated into the movie. Attempts to explain the Toastmasters organization and its charter come across as at once perfunctory and a bit shaggy and half-considered.
Most of “Speak,” though, is an uplifting portrait of friendly competition, and it’s when the film identifies this narrative track and embraces as its core mission the illumination of positive thinking and dream pursuit that it really takes off. Co-directors Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling eschew directorial flashiness, and instead double down on the basic human connection of their subjects, almost all of whom have experienced some considerable health problem or other emotional setback.
The competition parameters at this national convention — seven-minute speeches, sans notes, differing from the material that has passed the speakers through various area and regional feeding rounds — are kind of loosely defined, but in the end it doesn’t much matter. Author and would-be professional motivational speaker Rich Hopkins, the aforementioned family man amputee who — with the support of his wife but the clucking disapproval of her family — is an especially relatable figure. In his humble obstinance, one glimpses the heartening strength of American character.
NOTE: “Speak” opens in Los Angeles at the Pasadena Playhouse 7. For more information on the film, visit www.SpeakTheMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon