In just 20 minutes, the cast and crew of The Silent Child (2017) convince you to learn sign language. This captivating, Oscar-nominated short film surrounds Joanne’s (Rachel Shenton) fight to get educational support for Libby (Maisie Sly), a young deaf girl born into a family in denial of her hearing disability. The quietly stylish film boasts an important message: everyone deserves support and education.
We first meet Libby in a chaotic breakfast scene in her home. She is surrounded by her family amid the school rush; they laugh, chat, and eat together, but Libby sits silently and invisibly. She is outcasted. That is, until Joanne, a social worker, knocks at the door. Used to being ignored, Libby takes time to warm up to an enthusiastic, but patient, Joanne who wants to teach her how to sign. To say that Maisie Sly’s performance is phenomenal is an understatement, especially once you learn that she is, in fact, deaf in real life. This gives an emotional edge to the performance that could not have been achieved otherwise.
Over the course of the film, director Chris Overton shows how Libby emotionally opens up to Joanne. He slowly builds this bond in front of the audience – a bond created by communication. His montage of Joanne teaching Libby sign language tugs at our heartstrings as we watch. The use of silhouettes in a scene where Joanne is teaching Libby to sign is indicative of the story’s universality – as Rachel Shenton would know. In an interview with IndieWire, Shenton explains that this film came as an emotional response to her childhood. At 12 years old, her father suddenly went deaf after undergoing chemotherapy; she had to learn to sign (something completely alien to her). Now, she is an ambassador for the National Deaf Children’s Society. In her Oscar speech, which she signed for Maisie, she says that the film ‘is not exaggerated or sensationalised … it is happening’ and that ‘millions of children all over the world live in silence and face communication barriers, and particularly access to education.’ This is something the film deals with expertly. The fact she goes on to thank the academy ‘for allowing [them] to put [the film] in front of a mainstream audience’ speaks volumes about the lack of representation.
The tone of the film changes when Joanne gets a call from Libby’s mother, Sue (Rachel Fielding), who expresses her distaste for sign language, and her want for Libby to learn to lip read instead. We get glimpses throughout the film of Sue’s discontent at her child’s disability. Writer and actor Shenton portrays this ever so delicately through the dialogue. On multiple occasions Sue says goodbye to Libby half-heartedly as she rushes out the door, blowing a kiss. This subtly shows her ignorance as she either does not notice or does not care that Libby can’t hear her; she is too busy rushing to work. Threading through the film, ignorant dialogue continues as we hear Sue argue with her husband (Philip York) about how every parent wants their child to be ‘perfect’. What Joanne is quick to point out though, is that Libby is normal, she’s just deaf, and that she can have any career she wants if she gets the right support.
Access to education is a crucial theme which sparked an inherently political debate about additional support needed in schools across the country. The way in which Libby should be educated is hotly debated between Joanne and Sue. Striving for a more mainstream approach, Sue believes Libby should learn to lip read and go to school like a ‘normal’ child. Joanne, however, deeply believes that Libby should learn to sign and have an interpreter at school with her, offering to be the interpreter herself. As the film comes to its climax, Sue fires Joanne, telling her that Libby is going to a mainstream school without support (furious? Me too). A heartbroken Joanne asks if she can say goodbye to Libby, and after being told that it’s best if she doesn’t, goes to find Libby at school. Later, we see that Libby is in a mainstream school, and her class is starting a spelling test – ah, yes, those old things. But, as the teacher calls out the words to spell, Libby sits staring into the distance, unable to partake.
In a heartbreaking final scene, we see Joanne at the school gates, shut off from Libby who stands alone at the edge of the playground, unable to communicate with her classmates. Libby spots Joanne and signs ‘I love you’, to which Joanne replies with the same. If you don’t feel moved by the end of the film, you’ve not been watching properly. Chris Overton’s stylish yet realistic portrayal of a deaf girl in a hearing family is not preachy, but instead asks gently for compassion. Using three title cards at the end of the twenty minute film, Overton provides information to the audience to further drive the message home: ‘over 78% of deaf children attend mainstream school with no specialist support’. After we’ve seen the emotional consequences of such a lack of support, this fact is shocking, and I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that it made me want to learn sign language myself, simply for the benefit of others.
In short, The Silent Child beautifully captivates an issue not commonly represented in mainstream film. With Shenton’s masterful writing, Overton’s stylish direction, and Sly’s groundbreaking performance, it announces the clear message that better education is needed if deaf children are to be correctly supported and are to receive the best chance at fulfilling their potential.