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The Independent Critic

Patrick Fabian, Diana Coconubo, Kailey Rhodes, Ayanna Berkshire, Lowell Deo
Ian Ebright
87 Mins.

 Movie Review: The Way We Speak 
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It wasn't long before I sat down with Ian Ebright's The Way We Speak that I found myself dealing with an unusual situation. I'm a peaceful sort, a longtime violence prevention activist and devout person of faith who leans toward the more progressive side of Christianity. Conflict is rare with me - I'm a friendly guy with whom very few souls have anything resembling a disagreement. 

But, I have a neighbor. He moved in not long ago replacing a neighbor with whom I got along famously. He's taken to complaining. There's one complaint, in particular, and it always involves vehicles parking too close to his mailbox (which happens to be in my yard). 

For the most part, we've come to peaceful terms about this issue. I do the best I can to encourage my friends to park away from his mailbox. He, on the other hand, has been an otherwise fine neighbor. 

Yet, from the dust has risen an increasingly hostile conflict between this neighbor and my lawn guy. My lawn guy, despite being implored by myself and my neighbor, has steadfastly refused to park away from the mailbox with a "I'm only going to be 30 minutes" excuse. 

It was right before I sat down with The Way We Speak that this conflict reached a boiling point. 

Words were spoken (between them). Police were called (they did nothing). Both parties were speaking to each other poorly, a conflict that escalated unnecessarily and boiled over when it was so easily resolved. 

Indeed, The Way We Speak influences our lives, our culture, and our relationships. In The Way We Speak, Ebright's feature film debut after a handful of shorts and episodic efforts, we're offered a modern cautionary tale about an atheist and futurist commentator, played with precision and bite by recent SAG Award nominee Patrick Fabian, debating a young bestselling Christian author at Rampart, a prestigious thought-leader summit seeking to bring out the best in humanity. The Way We Speak takes a fictional yet familiar story to explore the increasingly deepened fault lines in our country fueled by envy, ruthless ambition, stereotypes, and the unquenchable thirst to be seen. 

The Way We Speak had its world premiere earlier this month at the Florida Film Festival followed by screenings at RiverRun and just this weekend at Julien Dubuque. There's little doubt that the film's success will continue. As The Way We Speak kicks off, we're introduced to Fabian's confident Simon Harrington, a suddenly popular essayist who has long lived in the shadow of his wife's more successful career. His wife, Claire (Diana Coconubo), is now stricken with cancer and their relationship dynamics have shifted with Claire's career gently sliding downward as Simon's picks up speed. Simon has been invited to participate in a keynote debate at the prestigious Rampart opposite his longtime best friend George Rossi (Ricco DiStefano). However, when George experiences a cardiac arrest on the eve of the event it appears Simon's spotlight will dim. 

Of course, he isn't having that. 

Enter Sarah Clawson (Kailey Rhodes), an up-and-coming Christian author who steps in as a debate opponent with the topic now to be "The Existence or Absence of God." 

While it may be tempting to think we've stumbled into a more secular version of God's Not Dead, rest assured that Ebright is less concerned with theological debating than he is with the political and universal divisions that keep us apart. The Way We Speak is more concerned with the journey than the destination and it's that journey that mesmerizes in what becomes a series of three debates followed by a closing argument for both speakers. 

Initially calculated yet cordial, this debate spirals into something more remarkably intense as the intellectual discourse begins to lose its boundaries and eventually one speaker's behavior will become more than a little egregious and compromises both speakers and even the integrity of the conference itself. 

Patrick Fabian soars as Simon, a man we come to know as both loving and loyal yet also prideful, insecure, and envious. As his story unfolds, it's amazing watching Fabian peel away Simon's layers to reveal his deeper truths. It's a tremendous performance. 

Given that many believe faith to be the absence of reason, Kailey Rhodes's performance as Sarah Clawson is quietly mesmerizing. She both rests in her faith and yet knows in terms of reason she's perhaps no match for Simon. He can construct his own arguments well, though he can deconstruct her arguments even better. Yet, Rhodes's Sarah is powerfully present and we always believe in her worthiness for being on this stage. The arguments constructed by both are at times profound and other times rather simplistic, each influenced by experiences and environments spoken and unspoken.  There's a hint of haughty faith in Sarah that feels appropriate, yet there's also a vulnerability that creates the incredible dynamics between our two adversaries. 

While Fabian and Rhodes are front-and-center here, it may very well be Diana Coconubo's Claire that holds the film together. Coconubo is incredibly impressive as Claire, a sort of wise sage and balanced soul who serves as a sort of bridging link for everything that unfolds here. She is not just Simon's partner. She is also his mentor, his safe space, his wise sage, and so much more. 

While she's here relatively briefly, Ayanna Berkshire is tremendous as Annette, the conference director and main judge whose addressing of the fallout from one particular evening of debate is profoundling compelling. 

Lensing by A.J. Marson is effective throughout The Way We Speak and original music by Billow Observatory is impactful in communicating the film's intellectual and emotional rhythms. Jeff Stillwell's production design helps to carry the film's increasing sense of disconnect and one must say, of course, that Ebright's script is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying in a way that is reminiscent of obvious influence Best of Enemies. 

The Way We Speak is a strong feature debut from Ian Ebright and it will be exciting to watch the film's continued journey and inevitable distribution deal in the future. The Way We Speak is currently continuing on its film festival journey. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic