REVIEW: ‘The Silent Child’ – an authentic and emotional Oscar-winning film

‘Short and sweet’ is perhaps the best way to describe Rachel Shenton’s Oscar-winning film, The Silent Child. At a length of just 20-minutes, the debut production from the former Hollyoaks actress succeeds at painting an authentic and pure picture of a scenario many deaf young people face today.

Photo: BBC See Hear/The Silent Child.

Set in a rural countryside village, the film follows a typical family with bubbly child Libby (played by deaf actress Maisie Sly) at its heart. Born deaf, it’s soon established that she has struggled to communicate with the wider world. That is, until support worker Joanne (played by Shenton) is called in by the family to break down the communication barrier.

With charming shots from Chris Overton of Joanne riding her bicycle across country lanes, Shenton’s character has an air of Nanny McPhee about her. With textbooks in hand and the occasional sweet treat, Joanne offers her own real-life magic when she introduces Libby to the magic of sign language – one of the most heart-warming moments of the short film being when Libby signs for the first time.

What follows is the growing anxieties of a mother who sees a child deviating from the ‘mainstream’ route of speech and oralism. From the start, we see mum Sue (Rachel Fielding) portrayed as a snotty, arrogant mother which, at times, falls into cliché traits deaf viewers would have seen or experienced all too often – most likely because the forced oralism of hearing parents on deaf children is far from a rare occurrence.

As soon as we see the upbeat and powerful proof of how expressive British Sign Language can be, the film takes a much more tragic turn as a result of the above. Visual set-ups on-screen create a perfect visual metaphor for how mainstream schools for deaf children – without the right support – can only exaggerate the communication barrier that they face.

The tragic feel, dramatic but in no way inauthentic, is the perfect tone upon which to campaign for more sign language recognition and support in schools, with statistics displayed before the credits roll allowing the film to transcend the realms of fiction to illustrate a real-life problem that many deaf children and young people in the UK face today.

In a production well and truly worthy of its Oscar win, duo Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton perfectly illustrate the communication barrier some deaf young people face with raw, emotional and tragic honesty.

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What ‘The Silent Child’s Oscar nomination means for the Deaf community | Liam O’Dell

It was a few days before the Oscar nominations were announced that I found out about The Silent Child. In a BBC News interview, six-year-old Maisie Sly talked about her hopes for a nomination for the movie, which also stars Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton.

Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr (changes have been made).

In a section of the film’s official website, the plot is described as centring around “a profoundly deaf four year old girl named Libby who is born into a middle class family and lives in a world of silence until a caring social worker teaches her the gift of communication.” Whilst I am yet to see The Silent Child itself, simply put, the film seems to be about the beauty of British Sign Language (BSL) – and that’s a wonderful thing.

With Shenton, who has worked closely with the National Deaf Children’s Society in the past, as the film’s writer, there’s no denying that the passion is present in the script and Chris Overton’s direction. As The Silent Child centres around family life as a deaf person in addition to BSL, it certainly shines a light onto Deaf culture, the Deaf community and our language.

As such, this is why an Oscar nomination is so important to not only the filmmakers, but every member of the subculture which The Silent Child represents. Even a nomination has the power to prompt film fans to seek out the movie, which means more people seeing a story centring around an important subject.

It has the potential to inspire more people to break down the language barrier and BSL, or at least encourage viewers to find out more about life as a deaf person. At the very least, a viewer’s misconceptions are challenged. At best, they see the power of connecting over a language, and seek to learn even basic sign language in order to communicate with any deaf people they know.

On top of all this is the representation aspect. Slowly but surely, more deaf people and deaf-related stories are gaining prominence in the media. From Nyle DiMarco’s success and Switched from Birth in the US, to the great work See Hear and the BSL Scotland Act have led to in the UK, deaf issues are getting the attention they rightfully deserve.

Also, let’s not forget that Maisie is profoundly deaf herself – a detail incredibly important in a film and TV industry which seems to cast non-disabled people, neurotypical people or those without the specific condition in the role. Members of the deaf community have called for deaf actors in deaf roles, and this Oscar nomination serves as recognition that such an initiative really improves the accuracy and quality of a film. The Silent Child‘s success is a small but massively positive step for representation – both in terms of the actual story and the issues it explores, and casting decisions.

Now comes the big ceremony in March, and I wish The Silent Child every success.