Director Chris Overton and writer Rachel Shenton pull no punches with their short on deaf awareness entitled The Silent Child. What could have been a cloying piece about parents thawing to the realities of a life they pretend they’re too busy to see with eyes open proves a rather bleak depiction of how ablest our society is. It’s one thing to realize how ill-equipped many institutions in the United States and Britain are towards the hearing impaired, but another to bluntly air the delusions of family members who punish their children in a false sense of self-blame. To want your deaf child to read lips is an understandable dream. But ignoring sign language as a communication tool so they feel included rather than deficient is inexcusable.
This push and pull is at the center of the film as Sue (Rachel Fielding) hires Joanne (Shenton) to help prepare her young daughter Libby (Maisie Sly) for school. The mother’s ambition is to let the girl read lips and experience school like her hearing children did. Sue’s quick to say Libby is already proficient (she’s not) and unable to comprehend how lip-reading doesn’t apply when you can’t see the lips speaking (either because she’s too forlorn and alone to look or because a teacher will still talk while facing the chalkboard). Joanne is therefore thrust into a volatile situation wherein she knows what’s best for the child isn’t what the parent wants. She hopes proof of Libby’s progress will warm Sue to this reality. We do too.
But this is a public awareness vehicle, not a fairy tale with impossible expectations. Shenton and Overton never waver from showing the change that happens to Libby when she’s seen rather than ignored. Paralleling her growth is the steady devolution into frustration of Sue as she watches the little communication she believed she shared with her daughter get usurped by something she can’t bother to learn or refuses to so her daughter isn’t saddled with a “crutch.” The filmmakers sprinkle in a couple other juicy tidbits of expository information to infer upon Sue’s psychological motivations and reinforce the stigma so many unjustly place upon deafness. While we hope Libby receives the care she deserves, we resign ourselves to the tragic statistics presented before the end credits without yet seeing them.