Deafhearing Family Life in The Silent Child: an Unsympathetic Portrayal?

The Silent Child, C. Overton and R. Shenton, 2017. UK: Slick films

Reviewed by Dr Sara Louise Wheeler, Lecturer in Social Policy, Bangor University

At the 2018 Oscars, writer and actor Rachel Shenton made her acceptance speech in British Sign Language (BSL), when her film, The Silent Child, won the Oscar for best live action short film. It depicts the life of a deaf child, Libby (Maisie Sly), born into a hearing family, and subsequent attempts by a social worker, Joanne (Rachel Shenton), to organize the best support for Libby. The film was one of a wave of films in 2017 which depicted signed languages as part of everyday communication, including Baby Driver and The Shape of Water. Collectively, these films have opened up a space for debate about the status of signed languages worldwide.

The Silent Child has been praised for addressing key issues facing deaf children in contemporary society, including that: parents may assume deaf children hear better than they really do and can ‘follow really well’; deaf children can find themselves distant from their own families; signed languages can make a huge difference to communication, engagement and confidence; and that hearing parents can, for a variety of reasons, be resistant to learning and using signed languages. In a previous article, I highlighted that about 5% of the film is spent discussing the possible implications of genetic deafness and associated prejudices. Libby’s grandmother, Nancy (Anna Barry), who it transpires is not genetically related, seems to view hereditary deafness as associated with lower intellect and limited chances of being employed. Libby’s father, Paul (Philip York), who is also not biologically related, comments that the family has ‘quite low expectations’.

My online article received some responses which made me reconsider my initial, steadfastly positive viewing of The Silent Child. A hearing mother of two deaf teenagers commented that it is important to understand that for some hearing parents, this may be their first experience of deafness and frequently they find themselves making choices amid a confusing plethora of conflicting information and advice. Parents in this situation can face huge pressures, and in their struggle to communicate with their deaf children, they can feel inadequate. Furthermore, genetic conditions which are particularly sensitive and emotive subjects can be used as a ‘blame card’ within families. Another discussant wondered if any family really could be quite so insensitive as the one depicted in the film, and emphasized that the school depicted would be under ‘special measures’ for abandoning Libby with no communication strategies in place.

Following these comments, I re-watched The Silent Child, and found a somewhat different perspective. I was surprised by the unrelentingly negative portrayal of Libby’s family, which, in hindsight, does feel almost as though we as viewers are being invited to judge them, rather than empathise with the challenges they face. The portrayal of Libby’s school also feels unduly harsh.

Whilst The Silent Child does an excellent job of depicting the difficulties associated with everyday family life from the perspective of a deaf child in a hearing family, it could be argued that it does so at the expense of the perspective of hearing families. For example, having heard Libby’s mother, Sue (Rachel Fielding), state that Libby follows what is going on ‘really well’, we are shown the family at mealtime from Libby’s perspective, with an emphasis on the moving of lips during conversation, without sound. This cinematic approach enables us as an audience, to empathise with Libby’s position – however it does so by implying that her hearing family are oblivious to her communication needs. Meanwhile, Libby’s older brother, Seb (Sam Rees) shows an interest in Libby’s use of BSL at the breakfast table, only for a later reveal that he is motivated by his attraction to social worker Joanne.

Whilst it is obviously difficult to convey the complexity of family life in a 20-minute film, it could be argued that The Silent Child depicts Deafhearing family life by demonising parents and families, to emphasize the isolation felt by deaf children in predominantly hearing families, and the resistance some parents show towards such languages. Seen from the viewpoint of Deafhearing families, the overriding message may be seen as judgemental and an unfair portrayal of actual Deafhearing family life, which is often more complex and nuanced. A qualitative inquiry by West (2011) revealed that Deafhearing families often embrace and celebrate signed languages, alongside a plethora of communication styles and assistive technologies.

While The Silent Child has undoubtedly been successful in raising awareness of important issues for deaf children, it has perhaps overlooked some important issues for hearing parents and families of deaf children, and maybe even caused some to feel unfairly judged and badly portrayed. There are reportedly plans for a follow up, a feature length film of The Silent Child; hopefully this will give the filmmakers the time and space to present a more balanced portrayal.

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