The Silent Child follows the progression of a deaf four-year-old girl as she is given the gift of communication through English Sign Langauge, or ESL, in a hearing person’s world. The movie opens with a few establishing shots and a frantic family as Libby (Maisie Sly) is simply overlooked and spoken to, despite the inability to understand. The family is oblivious to the youngest child’s deafness and stands unwaveringly by their claim that she is developing at a outstanding rate. Libby, however, has no tools of speech nor signing whatsoever, and the struggle between mother and child is painful to watch. It’s aggravating to watch Sue (Rachel Fielding) carry on and ignore the needs of her daughter.
She regularly speaks to her as if there is some sort of connection or understanding between the two. Joanne (Rachel Shenton) is called upon to step up as a speech therapist, but instead, she teaches ESL to Libby. She is the true mother figure in The Silent Child as the nameless family tends to be unexplained, confusing family emergencies, like bringing father Paul’s (Philip York) mother to the hospital. The family is weak, and the supporting cast isn’t much of a cast at all. Yes, there’s other siblings, but they aren’t impressionable or notable in any way.
There is only drama between Sue and Paul as tensions thicken. Joanne and Libby grow closer and bond through the power of ESL. The relationship is heartwarming in itself and the time spent between the pair is shown in a series of lapses, which are framed and shot with breathtaking techniques, including the use of silhouettes while signing. Joanne introduces Libby to the world through the use of sign, from feeding ducks to reading books.
In one scene, while the hearing family is gathered around a table during a meal, all audio is cut. This supplementary touch really emphasizes the disconnection between the deaf and hearing world. There is some confusion, as the apparently ill grandmother confronts Joanne to speak on the subject of her granddaughter. The exchange is blatantly ignorant as the grandmother asks if deaf people will ever have a future. She then admits that Libby’s grandfather was deaf, and that Libby was Sue’s illegitimate child. This family secret is never brought up again and the interaction is almost meaningless.
Sue and Paul come to their decision that they no longer want their child learning ESL, and instead will enroll her in a mainstream school. The fear that there will be an underwhelming amount of deaf students and sign users cancels the option of hiring an interpreter. The decision itself is infuriating, and can be categorized as selfish, for petty reasons. It’s inferred that the family is ashamed of Libby’s deafness as they decline to sign or even understand deaf culture.
The conclusion is utterly heartbreaking. Libby is enrolled in a hearing school, where she struggles to keep up with her peers. The last scene is the most upsetting. Joanne tries to reason with Paul and Sue, and then makes her way to the schoolyard where Libby was to be seen. She, from behind the gates, signs to the other, but cannot stay for long before she breaks down. Unfortunately, this is the reality that deaf children face. Before the end credits begin to play, the studio gives the audience informative deaf statistics. Though the film is pivotal around fictional events, 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and 78% of deaf children will attend a hearing school.