starring Lachlan Watson, Michele Hicks, Nick Sandow, Brendan Meyer
screenplay by Michael Rasmussen & Shawn Rasmussen
directed by Jeffrey A. Brown
The Boston Underground Film Festival runs from March 22-March 26, 2023. Click here for more info.
by Walter Chaw I consider myself a fairly boring, credulous person who nevertheless, based on a couple of experiences I can't explain, believes in ghosts and is disturbed by stuff like the Electronic Voice Phenomenon, not to mention the tenuous wisdom of playing with Ouija Boards. Jeffrey A. Brown's The Unheard catches me right in my irrational fears with its story of Chloe (non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, playing the role of a young woman here), who returns to the isolated Cape Cod of her youth a decade after losing her hearing there from a case of meningitis. Her mother vanished around the same time. She was once thought to be a runaway, but it's looking more likely that she was the victim of an active serial killer. At least, that's what Chloe's hallucinations, for lack of a better word, intimate in the flashes of clarity they offer between the white-noise blatting from the closed-circuit television at her house in Cape Cod. She's come back to clean up the old place, make peace with her ghosts, and recover from an experimental treatment for her hearing loss from earnest, hopeful Dr. Lynch (Shunori Ramanathan). She hasn't, I don't think, thought things all the way through.
There's a wonderful moment when Chloe is first getting her hearing back where she tells Dr. Lynch that her voice isn't what she imagined it would sound like, and Dr. Lynch, suddenly uncertain, asks if that's a good thing. Chloe isn't speaking in terms of judgment, though: whether a voice is better or worse than nothing is a meaningless distinction. Wilson and Ramanathan handle it perfectly, their relationship--professional but loaded with unspoken reasons to hope for the procedure's success on both sides. The Unheard is a Monkey's Paw story where if the metaphor for losing a parent traumatically is akin to losing a literal one of your five senses, what happens when you wish for your hearing to return? Does the lost mother, in whatever mangled shape she's in, alive or dead, return with it? It can be read in this way as a story of bias--one of which I'm guilty. Chloe is getting along just fine, reading lips and using a voice transcription app on her phone. She is able and independent. She doesn't need help doing the work she needs to do and no one takes her to her medical appointments. She has spent most of her life taking care of herself, and it shows. The deaf community has been clear they don't see themselves as disabled, and Chloe is proof.
Is my rooting for her to hear again related to her wanting it? And the good Dr. Lynch wanting it? Or is it more insidiously grounded in my belief that hearing is a baseline? Chloe uses her recovered sense to point herself, however confusedly, in the direction of an answer to her mother's disappearance. Colin Alexander's sound mixing is extraordinary, pulling us in and out of Chloe's perception of the world. When she puts her head against the floor of her bedroom, it sounds like a shell held up against her ear. She drills a hole in the floor and shines a light through it to pinpoint a place on the floor in the room beneath, where she listens again. Our hearing doesn't work like a shark's or an owl's--it's a piss-poor directional instrument, so seeing Chloe treat it like a weapon with a laser sight is revelatory. In making hearing new for her, I came to regard my hearing differently. There are a lot of images of holes and tunnels in The Unheard--a metaphor, if you want it to be, for the voyage from the womb to the world, or back again. Chloe rides her beam of light into the spaces where things are buried in the underneath and ultimately meets the monster to make peace with it. Or die, and in that sense find peace just the same. The Unheard is a lovely film with maybe an unnecessary red herring or two--unnecessary because the strength of it doesn't have anything to do, really, with anything outside of her own head. Once it becomes a standard thriller, it is only that. But before the picture chooses tidiness, it's electric.