The Silent Child, a 20 minute, Oscar winning Best Live Action short film, which tells the story of Libby (Maisie Sly) who was born deaf into a hearing family. The film shows the struggle that Libby faces (as do many deaf children) being the only deaf member within their family.
The family in the film are ‘wealthy’ shown by the mother (Sue) driving around in her brand new sparkling BMW and scenes of their very gorgeous home that they live in, in the country. From the outside, it looks like a tight and perfect family unit who spoil each other as money is not a problem. They all have breakfast together in the morning and the children are doted on when they call for their mother’s attention. It seems every bit like a normal family scenario.
However, to the family there is an anomaly which is Libby, the youngest child. The parents are at their last resort with her as they cannot communicate or connect with their deaf child. The parents therefore decide they need some help and guidance. This help comes in the form of specialist teacher Joanne, employed to educate and help Libby so she can be more confident starting school and to communicate with others.
I have thought hard about the way I would review this incredibly moving and emotional film – there are already many published reviews in newspapers and articles online. They all follow a similar style which have come from the voice of a professional film critic. I however, work with deaf children and I am involved in this environment every day. I therefore wanted to address the film through my perspective and my feelings towards the characters played in the film.
My thoughts on Libby:
Libby is a sweet girl who is isolated in the world. She is trapped in a family who do not understand her or how to help her, she has no friends at school and only has one person in her life who she trusts and loves.
She shows bad and defiant behaviour towards her mother as she cannot communicate with her. It must be very frustrating for Libby to see everyone communicating and speaking around her and the only thing that can give her entertainment is being sat in front of the TV – which I bet is all Libby gets up to in school holidays too. When Sue tries to take the remote away from her, Libby hits her and causes a scene.
Libby is very quickly catching onto British Sign Language and it is so nice to see her able to express what she wants and thinks. The family are shocked when they see Libby ask to look for treasure because they did not know she had that vocabulary or language.
In one of the last scenes in the film, Libby is in her classroom with her back to the teacher while a spelling test is happening. Libby having her back to the teacher means not only can she not hear but has absolutely no chance in even trying to lip read or watch body language. She can’t access the test and looks less capable than the rest of her class when this really is not the case.
Libby also is all by herself in the playground. She appears to have no friends and is again not only isolated at home – but now also at school. If the family let Libby have Sign Language as her main form of communication – she would have a Communication Support Worker at school who would be someone Libby could open up to and trust at school.
My thoughts on Joanne:
Joanne is an incredibly kind and positive person for Libby to have in her life. She is understanding and knowledgeable – the only one able to see how capable Libby truly is. In one scene, Joanne speaks to Libby’s Grandmother. The Grandmother asks if Libby will be able to have a job one day. Joanne replies with “I think she will be able to have a job in anything she likes”. The attitude of Joanne is spot on. It will be harder for a child like Libby, but with the right support she will be able to achieve any job she likes and go to University. Deafness is NOT a learning disability. Of course, there are deaf children who have additional needs and may have learning disabilities, but on it’s own there is no reason why a deaf child should not be able to achieve the same as hearing peers. Joanne knows this, and the spoken dialogue is powerful to the viewers watching.
Joanne teaches Libby British Sign Language. It completely changes Libby as a person. She becomes vibrant, and you can see her empathetic and caring side come through. Her personality is really shining – something her family have not seen in the 6 years she has been alive. British Sign Language is so expressive and makes people a great communicator. I even find it easier to Sign and gesture how I am feeling easier than finding the right words to explain it.
It must be so frustrating for Joanne to be told to stop seeing Libby and teaching her sign language as the family want her to lip read. Joanne is the expert, she knows what will give Libby the best start and chance at succeeding in school and every day life. She is battling against parents who think they know best and are scared by something they do not understand compared to someone who would have trained for years to be able to help deaf children gain results.
I felt a connection to Joanne as her job is similar to those I work with and work I try to aspire to. We need more people training to become Teachers of the Deaf as many are about to retire and there are not many young TODs around. If they die out then Deaf schools will close and deaf children will be sent to mainstream schools and not have the best support that they need. Joanne is young and fresh – a great role model to both deaf children and aspiring teachers.
My thoughts on the Parents:
From the offset it is clear that the parents have very low expectations of Libby and her future – it is even explicitly said by Libby’s Stepfather. How unfair this is for poor Libby. She is not even given a chance by her own family.
The family expect Libby to access the world through lip reading and communicate in a way that is easier for them, instead of the family seeing that they need to change the way they communicate in order to fit into Libby’s world. The family are wealthy and could easily afford to go to sign language classes and do it together. This is a lucky position to be in as lots of hearing families say they cannot afford to learn Sign Language as it is expensive.
The mum shows that she is far too busy to be able to take lessons and so are the siblings as they have many after school activities to be attending. The lack of want to help their child is heartbreaking.
The parents are scared about Libby learning Sign Language because they do not understand it and do not want to be alienated by something they don’t understand. Instead of joining Libby in this journey – they put a stop to it. They tell Joanne she is to stop seeing Libby and stop teaching her Sign Language. They also use the fact her peers at school can’t sign as an excuse for her not being able to ‘fit in’ when at school.
I can understand that the mother may feel threatened by Joanne in some way as she has come into her home and is communicating with her daughter when this is something Sue cannot do. But she is selfish in not seeing that it is all to help Libby and aiding her to grow and develop. It is not about the mother and how she feels.
My thoughts on the siblings:
It is clear that they have their parents full attention. Their dreams and aspirations are considered and being met while Libby is completely ignored and left to herself.
The siblings do not seem to have any relationship with their younger sister. There is a scene where the family are having breakfast around the table and Libby signs ‘Orange Juice’. The brother picks up on this and thinks it is ‘cool’ that she has picked up some Sign Language. I find it so sad that it took this long for Libby’s brother to notice her – yet, he was able to see how Sign Language is benefiting his sister and her communication.
The siblings show that they are able to realise what a positive impact Joanne has on their sister, which is some what the opposite reaction of their mother who finds herself alienated by the fact Libby is learning a language she does not understand.
My thoughts on the Grandmother:
The Grandmother is of an older generation that see deaf people as helpless. She tells us of how Libby’s biological grandfather was deaf from birth also. She is judgmental and cruel mocking his profession as a cleaner.
Unfortunately, thoughts and feelings of an older generation are hard to change. As my generation become mothers and grandmothers, we will be more progressive and open-minded to realising that anyone can achieve any dream if they work for it. Her confusion into believing that Libby could even hold down a job made me so sad and angry.
Times are changing and there is so much out there (although still a long way to go) to make it easier for deaf people to have jobs such as an increase in Technology like electronic E-mailing and Facetime instead of phone calls and Access to Work including having money to book interpreters.
I would love to be able to change her mind and help her see that Libby’s disability is not going to mean she cannot succeed in life.
Overall, I absolutely loved the short film and really hope it can be developed into a mainstream film for the cinema. A worthy winner at the Oscars.
Catch it on BBC iPlayer now.
Emma Colton – firstname.lastname@example.org