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‘Figures of Speech’ (review)

Produced by Sami Kriegstein, Erica Dasher
Directed by Ari Levinson
Narrated by Chris Pine

One of the cool things a documentary can do is take a weird or fringe subject and make it interesting and in that regard, Figures of Speech is very successful.

The subjects of the documentary are four teams from the competitive space of Duo Interpretation, which is a segment of high school speech and debate. Competitors are not allowed to look at each other or touch each other and together they act out a scene or segment of a play. The documentary describes the activity as competitive acting and makes a lot of sense as you begin to see the performance pieces of the teams.

The teams can select any subject and we see examples of funny, edgy and politically charged selections as the four teams make their way through local and regional competitions in the hopes of winning it all on the stage of a high school in Las Vegas.

There are interesting and insightful cuts away from the kids to commentary from parents, coaches and judges which give us some insight into the pressure the competitors are under.

As Figures of Speech progresses you have no choice but to care about these kids. They are so expressive and their hopes and dreams become the audiences as we live and die with their victories and defeats along the way. The documentary paints into stark relief the sacrifices these kids make for greatness and extends to the high performing student outside the documentary.

One of the teams fails to advance at a certain point and as the documentarians capture the disappointment we hear the student say, “I could have killed myself more.” It’s daunting when you think about it. These children can’t let down. They can’t have an off day. They can’t make a mistake because a mistake knocks them off the pedestal of greatness and down into the mediocre. The sheer pressure these kids feel on a day to day basis would crush a lot of the adults I know and these are adolescents just beginning to realize who they are as people.  If you have children it makes you think carefully how far you want to push them before it begins to backfire.

This is a documentary of heartbreak and triumph. It has amazingly sweet moments where you will experience the emotions these kids go through. It highlights the randomness of doing your best and still falling short and even gives us a little high school romance. The romance is kind of adorable.

Producers Erica Dasher and Sami Kriegstein clearly love their subject matter and director Ari Levinson shows us the love through strong documentary storytelling with compelling kids and authentic emotions.

There is, however, a major flaw in this documentary. It took an unbelievably long amount of time to get made. The footage was shot during the George W. Bush administration. It’s insane that it took over 10 years to put together. The kids’ clothes, their pop culture references and their flip phones are a continuous distraction. It was really hard to get past as I watched the story especially because in real time everyone in the documentary is approaching 30 years of age.

Even the “where are they now” segment at the end was shockingly old. It appears from all analysis that this documentary has been in the can for 3-4 years.  Why is it being released now? Why did it take so long to come out? Why did Chris Pine lend his narrative voice to it? All weird unanswered questions that ultimately take away from the finished product.

There is a lot to like in this documentary. The subject is interesting, the kids really give you an idea of who they are and there is enough time to develop feelings for them and the outcome leaves you satisfied. If you can ignore how dated it is, you will really enjoy it. If you can’t, like me, you won’t enjoy it as much.

3 out of 5 stars

 

Figures of Speech is now available on DVD and Digital HD

 

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