My love of short films means that my ears tend to perk up if I hear someone talking about them (even if I’m in the middle of writing another blog post). Naturally, hearing about a short on BBC’s The One Show got my attention. Having now watched the film, I have some thoughts on the 2018 Live Action Short Film Oscar winner, The Silent Child.
Written by Rachel Shenton and directed by Chris Overton, The Silent Child follows a well-off and overly busy family who’s youngest daughter, Libby, is deaf and isolated due to her lack of communication skills. They bring in social worker, Joanne, to help get her ready for mainstream school and, as she begins to learn sign language, Libby flourishes. The mother, jealous of Libby’s burgeoning relationship with Joanne, then cuts off the sign language lessons. She has decided that Libby will do just fine with lip-reading as her main form of communication. The short ends with some scenes at the school, where it is clear that this isn’t working, and she is isolated once again.
There are some great things about this film and, first and foremost among them, is the acting of Maisie Sly as Libby. She’s honestly phenomenal, managing to capture the many dimensions of the character, from the stubbornly uncommunicative Libby at the start of the film, to the typically playful and enthusiastic child in the middle, to the heart-wrenching sorrow of the Libby who is once again trapped in a world where she can’t communicate using a language that works for her. I could not fault her performance. The fact that she is six years old just blows my mind. The older actors are also all very good in their roles.
The overall message of The Silent Child also cannot be faulted. As the pre-credits text says, 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents and 78% attend mainstream schools. Libby’s plight is not emotional fiction. It’s a reality that some children do face. I hugely support the idea of sign language being taught in schools. I only know some basics myself but so much of what I’ve learned just makes sense visually – just look up the sign for milk or man or even Santa and you’ll see – children, as learning sponges, would probably pick it up naturally. I can totally understand why everyone on Twitter has grown so impassioned.
Though there are some great things within The Silent Child, and I can’t knock it’s Oscar win, I do rather feel that it doesn’t utilise the short film form the way that I would like. It kind of feels like they made a short because they could fund a short but it would have been better suited to a feature length film or television series. Using a short film as a launching point for a bigger film isn’t unheard of – both Whiplash and The Babadook did it – but I feel like The Silent Child doesn’t quite succeed in its current medium. There are rumours of a film version and I think that this will be much more effective.
So, I’ve said that I don’t think The Silent Child quite works as a short. I better back up my point with evidence. To begin with, I’ll admit to my biased opinion – I favour visual storytelling in short films and am therefore less inclined to enjoy one that is dialogue-heavy. I had thought, given the subject matter, that I would be treated to a wealth of visual storytelling in The Silent Child and that’s… not what happened. For something that is about a child who learns by seeing, it relies heavily on dialogue (both spoken and signed) to tell the story. Almost everything we learn about Libby’s family, the situation, the action of the story is all done through some form of dialogue. If it weren’t for the subtitled during the sign language portions, I’m pretty sure I could have just listened to the film and wouldn’t have lost out on anything.
There are moments where the visual storytelling in The Silent Child works well – I particularly enjoyed the brief scene that showed breakfast from Libby’s unhearing point of view or the shot of Libby alone in a playground full of children – but such moments feel like experimental afterthoughts. This feeling is only compounded by the fact they usually accompany some sort of interesting shot, like a lengthy zoom out over the playground, which would fit if the film worked to be arty in other ways but feels out of place (and a little try-hard/film student) as it is.
Along the dialogue lines, I have to talk about the parents. The mother, Sue, is the main antagonist for the short and Rachel Fielding plays the rather pompous, jealous character well. The acting by Philip York as the somewhat pleasant but uncaring father, Paul, is good. They are let down hugely by the scripting. Both characters act as the main carriers for the film’s message. They both seem wildly uninformed about their daughter, not only as someone who is deaf, but as a person full stop. Given how on top of things the mother is with her other children, this seems rather over-exaggerated and like it’s a lazy way for the message to be given to the audience. Does the audience need to learn that a deaf child’s capability is not limited with the right support? Yes, it’s the main point of The Silent Child, so we’ll tell them exactly this in a conversation between the perfect social worker and evil, uncaring mother. Any key information that the screenwriter wants to give out tends to come out in conversations with one of the parents (though there is also a heavy-handed “Joanne is great, look what Libby has learned” moment from the brother too).
There is a great short film within The Silent Child with a little bit of editing (and little less reliance on dialogue info-dumping over visual storytelling, but I’ve ranted about that enough). The arty lingering shots, particularly in the first couple of minutes, could definitely be streamlined. In a short film, brevity is key. If it’s not moving the story forward, cut it out. Much of the film’s length feels sentimental, hamming up either the emotional message of the film or trying to show off with the cinematography, and I feel like it would work better as a clean twelve minute film. Both the script and the film demonstrate the importance of killing your darlings.
I feel bad that I’ve ragged on a film that I actually did enjoy and very much support the message of, but I do feel that The Silent Child missed the mark as a short film and perhaps has garnered much of its attention as an important message rather than a demonstration of the best aspects of the medium (and it seems I’m not alone in this opinion). While I lament their dialogue-heavy storytelling and lack of pruning in both the script and film, the acting was solid and Maisie Sly was simply amazing as Libbie, the silent child.