Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson (b. 1961)
First published: 1999
Director: Jessica Sharzer (b. 1972)
Screenplay by: Jessica Sharzer, Annie Young-Frisbie
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Elizabeth Perkins, Steve Zahn
In 1999, debut novelist Laurie Halse Anderson published a young adult book called Speak, about a thirteen-year-old girl who is raped at a party. The protagonist, Melinda Sordino, calls the police after the assault, but the truth gets lost in the melee as kids scatter to avoid arrest for underage drinking. When she starts high school in the fall, she is socially ostracized because everyone thinks she called the cops to get them in trouble. For the duration of the novel, Melinda struggles to put her pain into words—thus the book's title. Anderson told Thomas J. Brady for the Philadelphia Inquirer that the idea for the book came from a nightmare. “I wrote [it] down and the character who became Melinda started to talk to me,” she recalled. “For the first many, many, many pages, I was just taking notes.” Melinda may have had a lot to say to Anderson, but at fictional Merryweather High, her trauma and added social anxieties render her nearly mute. At home, her mother is absorbed in her own problems, as is her recently unemployed father. They interpret her silence as teenage sullenness. Only Melinda's art teacher, an eccentric older man, senses something amiss behind Melinda's somber mien; he never explicitly asks her what the trouble is, but he gives her the tools to express it herself through art.
Speak was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1999 and was a Michael L. Printz Honor Book in 2000. Though it was banned by a number of schools for its frank depiction of sexual assault, it went on to become a New York Times best seller and remains popular with teenagers today. Nancy Matson, for CNN, found that Melinda's inner monologue perfectly captures the timeless brutality of high school. “Readers will appreciate [Anderson's] honesty,” Matson wrote. In 2004, filmmaker Jessica Sharzer wrote and directed a movie adaptation of the book starring Kristen Stewart, who was thirteen years old when filming began. The film played at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on the Showtime and Lifetime television networks.
The film opens with a meandering shot of Melinda's bedroom. The room is pink and purple, with stuffed animals and other childish knickknacks that stand in stark contrast to the sullen girl sitting on the floor. Melinda looks into a mirror, carefully drawing lines over her lips, making them look as if they were sewn together. (The image of sewing one's lips shut is a potent one, often used as a form of protest. In 1989, the late artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz used a needle and thread to sew his mouth shut for a performance piece.) Melinda's mother (Elizabeth Perkins) comes into the room; seeing Melinda's artwork, she says, “I don't want to know.” After she leaves, Melinda looks in the mirror again and, after a moment, wipes the lines off of her mouth. With this introductory scene, screenwriter and director Jessica Sharzer effectively sums up the arc of the entire film: Melinda is alone and out of place; the adults in her life do not see, or fail to understand, the pain clearly written on her face; and ultimately, Melinda makes the decision to speak about her trauma on her own—she wipes away the lines herself. Throughout the film, Sharzer finds similar ways to make Melinda's inner life visible. Rather than rely too heavily on voice-over narration, she renders the unspeakable through an intricate series of images. Sometimes these images come in flashbacks to the night Melinda was raped; other times, the symbols (trees, apples, leaves) are more obscure. Sharzer also accurately captures the world depicted in the novel thanks to her decision to shoot the film at an actual high school, with real teenagers as extras. Finally, star Kristen Stewart adds necessary depth to film; the complexity of her performance contrasts with the broad-stroke characters that surround her.
On the first day of high school, students in Melinda's art class must pick a slip of paper to find the object or concept on which they are required to focus throughout the entire school year. On Melinda's paper is the word “tree.” At first, she is disappointed by her assignment. But art class—thanks to the kindness of her art teacher (Steve Zahn)—soon becomes her most absorbing endeavor. Trees become the image through which Melinda can comfortably express herself and one of the central images of the film. Trees in the film are, by turns, frightening, nostalgic (a memory of reaching up and plucking an apple from a branch is so strong that she takes a bite of the one that was supposed to be used for an experiment in science class), and comforting. As Melinda's mental health improves, Sharzer inserts a shot of Melinda's father, sawing the dead branches off a tree in the yard. In addition to the trees, Melinda's inner life is explicitly depicted in the form of a small, hidden room attached to a janitor's closet at school. This is Melinda's “safe space,” her emotional interior made physical. She found the room when she was looking for a place to hide from her history teacher, an overzealous disciplinarian, and it becomes her sanctuary. The sanctity of the space is violated at the end of the film—when her rapist tries to attack her there—but by then, her secret is out, and the room has served its purpose.
Sharzer shot the film in Columbus, Ohio, at a real high school with real students—“which is definitely not how most Hollywood films are made,” she told John Crook for the New York Buffalo News. “You can smell the cafeteria in our movie.” The age-appropriate cast is strikingly young compared to those of most movies about teenagers, which feature actors in their twenties. Their youth, coupled with their cruelty, is disturbingly realistic. Sharzer heightens this dynamic with a few well-chosen shots from Melinda's point of view. In one, viewers see Melinda's former best friend talking about her through a field of seats on the school bus. Sharzer also includes a handful of flashbacks and other evocative suggestions that Melinda and her friends have crossed the wide maturity gulf separating middle school and high school. Melinda recalls how her pack of girlfriends dressed up as witches for Halloween the previous year, before telling her art teacher that she is far too old to go trick or treating.
But Sharzer's filmic choices would be inert without the nuanced performance of Kristen Stewart as Melinda. Given the circumstances of her character, Stewart relies on facial expressions and physicality to convey a host of emotions. The audience must understand what the adults around her do not—that Melinda is not being silent because she is going through a phase but (perversely) because she has something to say. The supporting characters in Speak are not drawn with the same care as Melinda: her parents often seem implausibly self-involved, as do her teachers, who keep finding ways to actively ignore their students. But, just as the book was told from Melinda's wry perspective, so is the movie. For a teenager like Melinda, who feels alone for reasons that she believes adults would never understand, the world can seem like a very uncaring place.
Speak never appeared in theaters but was broadcast on the cable networks Showtime and Lifetime in a partnership with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) in 2005. Neil Genzlinger, for the New York Times, gave the film an even-handed review, writing, “It comes nowhere near capturing the wise, subtle tone of the book it's based on, but ‘Speak,’ the story of a teenage girl trying to cope with having been date-raped, is still an effective treatment of a difficult subject, thanks almost entirely to the performance of Kristen Stewart as the young victim.” The film remains popular largely because of its educational value; both novel and film are taught in schools, mostly to students around Melinda's age. Author Laurie Halse Anderson does not shy away from using her book as an educational tool and has spoken at schools about rape and sexual assault many times since the book's publication. She also knows firsthand the trauma of teenagers in Melinda's situation: Speak is partially drawn from Anderson's own experience of having been raped as a teenager. Her message to teens in this situation is simple: speak up. Speak, the film, is a bit didactic in this regard, but when it comes to sexual assault, it does not hurt to emphasize the point. “When I speak to kids, I often say none of us would ever be embarrassed or ashamed if we got mugged in the parking lot,” Anderson told Rachel Simon for Bustle. “The older I get, the more convinced I get that you have to speak up about these hard things if anything is going to get better for anybody.”
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- Brady, Thomas J. “Mute Character Said a Lot to Her Creator.” Philadelphia Inquirer 16 Apr. 2000: K02. Print.
- Crook, John. “Young Rape Victim Fights to Reclaim Her Life in ‘Speak.’” Buffalo News [New York] 4 Sept. 2005: TV37. Print.
- Genzlinger, Neil. “For One Teenager, the Party's Over.” New York Times. New York Times, 5 Sept. 2005. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/05/arts/television/for-one-teenager-the-partys-over.html>.
- Grinberg, Emanuella. “‘Speak’ Author: ‘We as Adults Struggle to Talk to Kids Honestly about Sex.’” CNN. CNN, 12 Apr. 2014. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/12/living/laurie-halse-anderson-speak>.
- Matson, Nancy. “Review: Book Recalls the Tumult of the Teen Years.” Rev. of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. CNN. CNN, 29 Nov. 1999. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/books/reviews/9911/29/speak>.
- Simon, Rachel. “Laurie Halse Anderson on ‘Speak,’ Censorship, and ‘The Impossible Knife of Memory.’” Bustle. Bustle.com, 6 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 June 2015. <http://www.bustle.com/articles/11009-laurie-halse-anderson-on-speak-censorship-and-the-impossible-knife-of-memory>.