I don’t watch as many short films as I should. It’s just not something that I ever really think about. Every time awards season comes round I hear about great short films but never actually do anything about them. I think, over the years, I’ve watched a handful of the animated shorts but that’s about it. However this year, when The Silent Child won an Academy Award I was intrigued. But not for very good reasons. I wasn’t interested because I knew anything about the film or anything. It was simply because the woman who wrote it was once an actor on a soap I used to watch. Yep, I’m a shallow individual but I wanted to see how good her film actually was. So it was perfect when it turned up on iPlayer recently. But it wasn’t until my mother watched it that I finally decided to check it out. And, after the stressful week I’ve been having, it seemed like the perfect thing to review for today’s post. A twenty-minute film? Perfect.
The Silent Child was written by actor Rachel Shenton who used her experiences as the child of a parent who became deaf. When she was a child, Shenton’s father lost his hearing whilst undergoing chemotherapy. After his death, she learnt British Sign Language and became an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society in 2011. She continues to raise awareness for deafness in the UK and this, her first film, was intended to educate people about the subject. It hopes to start a conversation and give people an insight into the plight of deaf children and their families in the UK today.
It does so by introducing us to three-year-old Libby (Maisie Sly), the youngest child in a middle-class family. Libby is the only member of the family with hearing problems and, as a result, is alone in a silent world. She struggles to communicate with her family and so lives a closed-off life. In order to get her more confident before school, her worried mother (Rachel Fielding) asks for the help of a specialist. Joanna (Shenton) assessed Libby and suggests that it would be fruitful to teach her sign language to make communication easier. Joanna clashes with Libby’s mother who has her own ideas about what is best for her daughter.
The Silent Child is a good film and does a great job at raising awareness to a big problem in our education system. It ends with the rather startling statistic that tells us more than three-quarters of deaf children have no support at school and, as it intended, the film won’t fail to get you thinking. It does a great job of getting this issue into the forefront and I can’t criticise it’s purpose. It’s wonderful that all the Oscar attention will help highlight this issues and maybe give help to parents struggling themselves.
As a film, however, I have some possible issues. There are some fantastic sequences in this film but there are also things that don’t work so well. The film is only 20 minutes long which means any conversation it started was always going to be brief. This isn’t so much of a problem but there are threads to the narrative that go nowhere and waste time. The subplot of Libby’s true parentage is a complete non-starter and the tension rising in the family as Jo’s presence starts to great is never fully explored. The whole film seems to be rushed and could easily have made a much longer run time. The ending, though emotionally resonant, feels slightly sloppy and a bit schmaltzy. I think it would have been nicer to have a more hard-hitting final note.
Then there’s the fact that the way the story is written means the characters are cast in lights that don’t exactly seem fair. From the first moment we see Joanna she is presented as a picture of perfection. She cycles through the countryside bathed in light and appreciating nature. If this were a Disney film she would be surrounded by doe-eyed wild animals and singing to herself. It feels as if this really is Joanna’s film rather than Libby’s at times. So there is little doubt who we are supposed to be supporting here. As such, Libby’s parents are then cast as the villains of the piece. This film doesn’t necessarily portray the struggle of parents to help their deaf child whilst being clueless. Instead it shows a family that neglect their child. For a film hoping to raise awareness, there is an incredibly judgemental tone that didn’t sit well with me.
Still, Shenton’s performance is incredibly charming and her on-screen chemistry with Maisie Sly is wonderful. They both do really good jobs of getting their point across and its clear Shenton cares very deeply about the subject. The film also does an incredible job of portraying the isolation of a deaf child in a hearing family. In a slightly haunting scene, we witness a family meal from Libby’s perspective. Hearing no sound, we witness what she feels like as her family ignore her and fail to interact. This small section was so powerful and emotive that I can’t help but wonder what the 20 minutes would have been like if this technique had been utilised more. Imagine, something akin to The Wizard of Oz where the whole thing is silent until Shenton presents an option for communication and the world opens up around us. It’s a shame this goes down a more conventional route.
Although, I can’t quibble too much. This is a delightful and emotional film that does exactly what it intended. It raises questions about the way deafness is handled in our current UK educational system and will get people thinking about deafness as a whole. I applaud it for doing it’s job so well but there is still a small part of me that wishes it was more refined.