Eye For Film >> Movies >> What? (2021) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Access to cinema with adequate subtitling is still a massive problem for Deaf audiences around the world, but there’s one genre of film where that issue just doesn’t arise: silent film. indeed, support from the Deaf community is part of what has helped to keep the treasures of the silent era alive. This film reflects that love, using the techniques of the silent era – in black and white, of course – to tell a contemporary story about a Deaf actor looking for a job.
It’s a film which you’ll get a lot more out of it you have some familiarity with the silent classics, as it’s full of affectionate references thereto, and it also makes use of a number of famous locations which it’s intriguing to see as they are today. Perhaps its biggest coup is the participation of Buster Keaton’s great granddaughter, Keaton Talmadge. The family resemblance is immediately noticeable and she does a good job of capturing his style in a small role predominantly focused on physical comedy, including a dance routine based on one of his own.
There are inside jokes here for Deaf viewers, too – cultural ones as well as those which make light of ridiculous situations with which most will be all too familiar, as our hero, Don (John Maucere) struggles to get by in a society full of people who seem unable to comprehend how hearing impairments work. most of the latter translate well enough for hearing viewers to appreciate them too, and there’s plenty going on to hold one’s interest regardless. Maucere is incredibly expressive, with both suits the silent style and makes the point that much of the communication everyone uses day to day doesn’t require sound. This also contributes to the film’s lively humour.
Running to 100 minutes and with several great supporting turns, the film makes an excellent showcase for Deaf talent and demonstrates just how many capable actors are being underused or ignored by the wider industry. It doesn’t really have enough plot to sustain this running time, however, and some themes are a little overplayed. More judicious editing would have given it greater impact. There are some nice running gags about the confusion generated when speakers of different sign languages try to communicate with one another, and the use of music is smart – occasionally the period tunes overstay their welcome, but suddenly bringing up the music again following silent scenes will make hearing viewers more alert to how the presence or absence of noise affects their engagement.
Despite being slow in places, this is a film with a lot to recommend it, and much more than just an artistic experiment or means of making a political point. Director Alek Lev really knows his stuff. If you’re a Deaf viewer, let’s face it. if will simply be a relief to be catered to like this, but you’ll also find it a fun ride in its own right. If you’re a hearing viewer, it may not be what you’re used to, but it’s well worth checking out.Reviewed on: 19 Apr 2022