With reality fluff proliferating on every channel, sometimes you need to take a break and go old school with a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. Sweet Nothing in My Ear, airing next Sunday night on CBS, is Hallmark’s return to a subject it had some success with back in 1985, when it aired the Emmy-winning Love is Never Silent. Unless the words nothing, ear and silent have somehow slipped past your consciousness, that topic is deafness.
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The wind in their ears: Jeff Daniels and Noah Valencia
Only now it’s a question of a threatened culture rather than simple acceptance. Overcoming the stigma of the ignorant, alienating and now-obsolete phrase “deaf and dumb” was the thematic thrust of the earlier film, a period drama about a hearing woman (Mare Winningham) overcoming her shame about having two nonhearing parents. Sweet Nothing in My Ear, however, jumps — okay, it’s Hallmark, make that strolls — into the issue of cochlear implants, a scientific and technological breakthrough that has divided the deaf community. Does a surgical procedure that introduces sound recognition imply an inherent defectiveness in an entire group of people who have developed their own rich, unique language? Should modern-age wonders that have greatly helped the deaf integrate more fully into a hearing world — video conferencing, texting, computerized lighting systems — stop at the point where a hole is drilled into one’s head? Is the procedure also about a majority erasing a minority?
Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels star as Laura and Dan Miller, a happily married mixed-aural couple — she’s deaf, he learned sign language to woo her — with a cute, curly-haired 8-year-old moppet named Adam (Noah Valencia), who lost his hearing at age 4. When, during an emergency room visit, a doctor suggests — or plants in Dan’s ear — the idea of cochlear-implant surgery for Adam, Dan latches onto the notion that his son’s life could be made easier. But Laura, the daughter of proud deaf parents, teaches at her son’s school for the deaf and is steadfast in the belief that her and her son’s lives aren’t hampered by lack of hearing; she adamantly opposes the procedure, believing her son “developed” deafness, as if he were a picture suddenly made brighter.
To give the whole question a thorny time element as well, Dan arms himself with studies that indicate cochlear implants have their best chance of making a difference in children. Soon, neither parent is willing to let go of their ideas about what they think is best for Adam, and suddenly a notion that initially stemmed from curiosity, goodwill and perhaps a hearing dad’s understandably selfish desire to feel more a part of his son’s life, rips apart the family dynamic and leads to a legal separation. The two eventually battle in a custody hearing. The story is told in flashback from the courtroom where Laura and Dan fight over Adam, albeit, forlornly, since this is a Hallmark hand wringer, after all, not a David E. Kelley lawyers-at-war smackdown.
The piece’s emotions are certainly raw, as anyone who’s seen the intense 2000 documentary Sound and Fury — about a real part-deaf/part-hearing family’s bitter decision-making process regarding this very issue — can tell you. Sweet Nothing in My Ear actually predates that film; it’s an adaptation of L.A.-based playwright/theater director Stephen Sachs’ 1998 stage work, and Sachs is scrupulous to a fault in ensuring that both sides of the debate are evenly represented and generate a fair amount of tension over whose view will prevail. Veteran TV-movie director Joseph Sargent, who also made Love is Never Silent 23 years ago, displays a sure hand with this material, steering clear of institutional schmaltz and focusing on the ways good people sputter and wound each other despite their best intentions.
The filmmakers couldn’t have found two more reliable actors than Daniels and Matlin to do the hard work of conveying the romance of joined forces when they work together for their son, the fearfulness of imagined betrayal and the lashing hurt of feeling misunderstood. They are people caught up in the most momentous decision of their child’s life, and they’re not afraid to show the less attractive side of parental nobility. I question, however, the use of a hearing actress’s high, tinkly voice dubbed over Matlin’s impassioned signing, rather than subtitles. (The same device is used for the wonderful actors who play her parents too: Deaf West Theatre founder Ed Waterstreet and Tony winner Phyllis Frelich, who were also in Love is Never Silent.)
I suppose the voice-over is there to give an audible equality to her scenes with Daniels, whose character talks while he signs because Laura lip-reads. But it’s an off-putting choice rather than an illuminating one, especially since Matlin’s Laura is the kind of interpreter-only deaf person who won’t use a pronunciation-challenged voice in interactions with hearing people. Voice stand-ins are one thing for musicals and cheesy Italian movies. But to utilize one alongside an established actress like Matlin in a movie about the chasm between one’s feelings and one’s ability to communicate them works as an unnecessary form of hedge-betting augmentation. Subtitles can be a distraction too, but for those of us who can hear, they’d at least preserve the integrity of an original performance. Because when Laura breaks down after a particularly combative exchange with her husband, I certainly don’t need another actress’s postproduction whimper to tell me what Matlin’s defeated, teary, confused and wordless carriage magnificently expresses. Great actors are never silent.
Sweet Nothing in My Ear | CBS | Sunday, April 20, 9 p.m.