Ruben (Rhiz Ahmed) was the drummer of his own punk band called Blackgammon, which he formed with his girlfriend and vocalist Lou (Olivia Cooke). One morning, Ruben suddenly felt the hearing in both his ears become muffled and unclear. After doing audiometric tests, his doctor advised him that both his ears are suffering from sensorineural hearing loss, and that he should avoid noisy activities to preserve the hearing that he has left.
Mindful of their gig schedules, Ruben denied his condition and continued to play his drums that night. Whatever hearing he had left in his ears totally disappeared. Ruben could never move on from his anger, only progressing to rage. Lou brought Ruben to a place run by Joe (Paul Raci) that aimed to help deaf people accept their disability and integrate into their new normal life. Ruben did not find it easy to fit into the system of discipline demanded by Joe.
This film co-written and directed by Darius Marder (in his feature film debut as director) tries to put the viewer into the aural experience of deaf people. Its soundtrack is supposed to be how deaf people hear or do not hear the sounds around them. The sound became muffled and annoying at first, and this would eventually progress quickly to absolute silence and be disorienting and scary. This sound and sound mixing was the most remarkable aspect of this movie, and should be in serious contention for technical awards.
In a remarkable acting performance, Rhiz Ahmed became Ruben -- a tattooed ex-drug addict, a rock musician, a rebel, a hedonist. Unlike Joe and his other deaf housemates, Ruben was someone who cannot just simply accept this major life change sitting down. While he eventually learned to sign and interact with other deaf people, he still very much longed to be in the noisy world he came from. Despite restrictions, he was willing to do everything he can in order to get those cochlear implants which he believed could bring him back there.
In my regular day job as an otolaryngologist, I encounter people in various stages of hearing loss. I try to help them in my limited capacity as they try to cope with losing one of their vital senses. I can only imagine the devastating impact of this disability in their lives, especially for those who lost their hearing suddenly. I cannot exactly know or feel what they are going through as they struggle to communicate everyday. I get a brief taste of that difficulty as I try to talk to them during their consultation. What more the people who live with them at home?
This film may not be perfect. It had very slow pacing. Ruben's character not exactly likable. There was a false sense of ease in the way Ruben was able to get his cochlear implant surgery done, as it is definitely not that quick a process.
However, this film impacted me in a different way as a professional who works with patients with hearing loss. It brought me into a deaf community and how they want to live a life where deaf is not a handicap. It made me aware of how the technology we advise them about may or may not actually help them. This immersive approximation of life as a deaf person is a valuable lesson in empathy.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."