A high school freshman shakily tries to reclaim her life in the wake of a sexual assault in "Speak," an independent film airing tonight in an unprecedented simulcast by Showtime and Lifetime.
Based on an award-winning novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, the movie opens as Melinda Sordino (Kristen Stewart) begins her freshman year at Merryweather High School.
Although that can be a difficult transition for anyone, Melinda is public enemy No. 1 to most of her peers, a traitor who called police to a drunken, end-of-summer party most of them were attending.
Not even her ex-best friend, Rachel (Hallee Hirsh), knows Melinda's secret: She called the cops only after an upperclassman (Eric Lively) lured her into a car during the party and raped her.
Traumatized by the attack, Melinda has no one she feels she can talk to: not Rachel, whose desire to be popular drives her to shun Melinda; not Joyce (Elizabeth Perkins), her loving but self-absorbed mother, who can only surmise Melinda's silence is a moody phase; and certainly not Jack (D.B. Sweeney), her father, who has been in a haze of his own since losing his job.
Eventually Melinda finds her way into an art class taught by the eccentric Mr. Freeman (the irrepressible Steve Zahn), who gives her a nonverbal medium through which she can begin to articulate her pain.
"Speak" may seem an obvious fit for Lifetime, with its mandate to focus on women's issues, but first-time feature director Jessica Sharzer transcends the genre in two important respects:
First, Sharzer gives Melinda's attack a strong context, forcing the viewer to trudge through the halls of this high school over several months as Melinda struggles through her mundane routine.
Second, she has cast her film carefully with "students" who credibly look the right age.
"Kristen is an extraordinary actress and mature for her age, so people often can't tell how old she is, but she was 13 when we shot this," Sharzer says. "I thought it was very important that they looked like real kids, not some 25-year-old bombshell from Hollywood."
Struck by the power of Anderson's novel, written in the first person, Sharzer also says she knew it was vital that audiences share, not merely witness, the struggle Melinda goes through day after day.
"The audience is put in the position of having to experience the trauma with her and then to live through the mundane day to day when no one around her really knows what happened," she says. "What might seem as non-events from a distance, like going to a biology class, that's her world, her challenge on a daily basis."
Sharzer says she also felt it was important that the characters surrounding Melinda seemed three-dimensional and believable, even Andy Evans, her All-American rapist.
"That is why we cast someone who was not an obvious choice for that role," Sharzer says of actor Lively. " "It's only later that he starts to sense that something is really wrong."
Sometimes a cast member brought valuable personal insight to his or her role, as in the case of Perkins, who changed and softened Sharzer's take on the character of Joyce.
"Elizabeth has this natural warmth and sense of comedy, which was not at all what I had pictured originally," Sharzer says. "I originally had thought of that character as more brutal. Elizabeth has a daughter who is about the same age, so I think she felt it was very important to show the humanity of this woman.
"As an actor, she had to pretend to know only what her character knows, and her character doesn't know anything [of her daughter's plight]. In her mind, this woman is saying all the right things."
"Speak" was completed two years ago, but although it has been well received in several film festivals, it was never released theatrically. Sharzer she says she is delighted by the TV simulcast.
"It is going to get to so many more people via this simulcast on Lifetime and Showtime," Sharzer says. "This is the perfect distribution model, but it took two years for us to devise it.
"I hope families watch it together. It's PG-13, and we think it will encourage conversation between adults and their kids."
Lifetime and Showtime will air a public service announcement from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organization, after the movie, informing viewers where they can seek help and information from the RAINN hotline (1-800-656-HOPE).
Where: Lifetime, Showtime
When: 9 to 10:30 tonight
Kristen Stewart...Melinda Sordino
Elizabeth Perkins...Joyce Sordino
D.B. Sweeney...Jack Sordino
Steve Zahn...Mr. Freeman
Eric Lively...Andy Evans
Directed by Jessica Sharzer. Written by Sharzer and Annie Young-Frisbie. Produced by Fred Berner and Matthew Myers.