Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 58° Partly Cloudy
News >  Features

‘Speak’ follows quiet pain of troubled teen girl

Mike Hughes Gannett News Service

“Speak” is back and ready to make a fresh impact.

Now it’s a TV movie, airing simultaneously tonight on cable channels Showtime and Lifetime. It ripples with the quiet pain of Melinda, an ostracized teenager who becomes mute after suffering a tragedy.

Before that, it was a million-selling novel for teens.

“It’s magnificent,” Jessica Sharzer, the film’s director, says of the novel. “It’s a very wry, funny book.”

Yes, funny. At the core is a deep tragedy, which “Speak” reveals slowly. Still, the book (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1999; Penguin, 2001) has a rich vein of humor about a girl who suddenly falls mute.

“I’m from a family that looks at everything with humor,” says author Laurie Halse Anderson. “I think that’s a characteristic of teenagers in general. They are screamingly funny.”

Only shreds of the humor reached the movie, but Anderson isn’t complaining.

Sharzer says she stayed as close to the original book as possible.

“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,” she says.

The 90-minute film will air in full on Showtime, but will be trimmed to accommodate commercials during its two-hour time slot on Lifetime. Though too mature for young elementary-schoolers, it makes a superior family viewing experience

It was done two years ago in the style of an independent movie. Sharzer was 30 at the time and had never made a full-length film. She shot it during a summer at a school in Columbus, Ohio, working quickly.

A few veteran actors were cast in supporting roles. Elizabeth Perkins and D.B. Sweeney play Melinda’s parents, and Steve Zahn plays a quirky art teacher.

Mostly, though, the movie leans on Kristen Stewart, now 15 and best known for playing the daughter of Jodie Foster (“Panic Room”) and Sharon Stone (“Cold Creek Manor”) in scary films.

“She’s a phenomenal actress,” Sharzer says. “Her face is so open that when you’re watching her react to things, you’re filling out the inner monologue.”

Her reactions are rounded out by a voiceover taken directly from the novel.

The character is one who literally leaped into Anderson’s mind.

“I woke up one night and heard a girl crying,” the author says. “It was a nightmare, but very realistic.”

So she began thinking about it. Who did she think this girl was? Why was she crying?

Her mind drifted back to the old days.

“I hated being a teenager. … High school was just hell for me,” says Anderson, who grew up in a preacher’s family.

She moved often, adjusted hesitantly, and read a lot. Most difficult was when her father quit the ministry. Money was tight and she was starting high school in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I actually escaped my senior year,” she says. She spent that year in Denmark as an exchange student.

Anderson has written five picture books and nine “Wild at Heart” books about kids and animals. Still, it was “Speak,” her first novel, that drew raves.

A National Book Award finalist, it still ranked No. 11 on the latest Publisher’s Weekly list of best-selling children’s fiction, six years after it was published. The book is widely taught in high schools.

“I always call it the ‘Catcher in the Rye’ of the new generation,” Sharzer says.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.