The Sounding is an intriguing film co-written by Bryan Delaney and Catherine Eaton and directed by Catherine Eaton. The basic tenet of the film centers around the question, “Should we allow individuals to choose for themselves their own identity as long as they do not harm others or themselves?” Given our cultural folkways, which can be incredibly damaging and soul destroying, and which often may force one to compromise one’s ethics to remain employed and earn money to survive, receive healthcare and live, how does one maintain one’s soul creative integrity and discover who one can be? Is it not the place of parents to morph their children into a successful place in the society where they then may follow in their parents’ footsteps, marry, have children, and die? Are parents taught how to raise their children to find themselves and their creative ethos?
Eaton and Delaney have stretched the boundaries of being, and brought the culture, society, and concept of consciousness under close scrutiny with their examination of Liv (Catherine Eaton), the granddaughter of former doctor, Lionel (Harris Yulin). Liv, we discover is a conundrum; she does not speak, though she is able to. When we hear her express herself (after around fifteen minutes into the film), she uses Shakespearean language (from his comedies and dramas), to sound her feelings and relate to the circumstances that she finds herself in.
The film’s development takes off after Michael (Teddy Sears), visits the island community of friends and neighbors where Liv and Lionel have made their home. Michael has gone there on the invitation of Lionel, who Michael eventually finds out is dying of throat cancer (a related irony). Lionel tells Michael he has invited him there to watch Liv and perhaps then stay afterward; it is up to Michael to glean from the situation and discover what he should do. It is a fascinating prospect, for we, like Michael, a psychologist/psychiatrist are already attempting to identify what Liv’s problem is and why she does not communicate like any “normal,” “rational” individual.
After Lionel’s discussion with Michael, and the celebration of Lionel’s last birthday party, we get the sense that Lionel would be happy if Michael and Liv ended up together. Michael is not at all pleased at the prospect because he believes that Liv’s silence is a part of her psychological illness and derangement through PTSD or some other circumstance in childhood. He already has his diagnosis pad out as do we, and we are convinced she has been the victim of a sexual predator, her grandfather has molested her, or some other egregious event has befallen her when she was young. Only this would explain her behavior.
When Michael investigates her profile, he is no closer to the truth and Lionel assures him that the greatest gift Lionel received was when he stopped being Liv’s doctor and just turned away from the business of austere medical/mental diagnosis altogether. Neither we nor Michael are convinced of Lionel’s behavior and findings, but by the conclusion of the film, we understand Lionel’s rationale and his revelations.
When Lionel dies and Liv swims into the inlet, it is after an absence which convinces Michael that she is trying to commit suicide. This is above the insistence of friend Roland (Frankie Faison) who assures Michael she is fine. Michael calls a rescue team and they pull Liv out of the water, revive her, and bring her home for a short spell. Michael is convinced that she wanted to do herself harm and has her committed to a psychiatric hospital. He has usurped her autonomy and her decision-making power over her friends and has her incarcerated because she will not speak and because he knows that she will harm herself. But will she?
Eaton and Delaney raise questions about human identity, independence, autonomy, dignity, communication, language, understanding between individuals. They affirm every individual’s right to make choices for himself/herself and suggest where the line should be drawn with regard to individuals who may wish to take their own lives. We are uncertain whether or not Michael is acting on Liv’s behalf or his own, for surely, as a doctor he is supposed to “save life.” However, what exactly does that mean with regard to consciousness and the mind? And what does that mean for Liv?
The conflict develops toward an interesting conclusion as Michael has to decide to what extent he may have misread the cues that Liv is giving him about herself because he cannot break into her consciousness with another language, nor is he ready to communicate with her using Shakespearean dialogue. Nor for that matter can/will any of the other doctors/psychiatrists on the staff of the hospital gain a break through. They have judged Liv to be brilliant but abjectly willful, harmful (she lures the other patients to rebel in a humorous scene where she disrobes and the other patients follow), self-destructive and a potentially violent escapee. She is one step away from the locked ward where patients are salivating from psychotropic drugs, passive, non-functioning, purposeless and will-less. Back in the “old days” electro-shock and lobotomies would have been the treatment to get such folks in line.
How Michael and Liv are able to communicate with each other on the same level is an interesting adventure and the appropriate Shakespearean dialogue allows Eaton’s Liv to “speak the speeches I pray you trippingly on her tongue!” The fitting dialogue follows from histories like Henry V and Julius Caesar, tragedies King Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth during various hospital scenes where Liv rails and rants against her tormentors and captors like Michael who initially committed her.
The themes of the film are superb. One is that an individual’s consciousness is completely unknowable through the material realms of science which are useless in the face of a person’s will. Of course, this is a problem as science would deem itself to be its own utilitarian god. Liv is perfectly fine within herself and on the island with her friends who accept and love her. It is out in the dumb, mindless society of psychiatrists who are convinced they have all the answers, or in the society at large which probably would not be able to understand Liv’s language (which is 450 years old) that she would be foundering. She is fortunate that she has her own island and that eventually, through a series of trials and errors and incredible revelations of humility, Liv is able to return to the place where she has found herself.
Eaton and Delaney have made an excellent case for the idea of consciousness being a state of will and the power of one’s ethos beyond cultural artifacts. To what extent does the society brutally force many to bend their will and their being to fantasies that please those around them but destroy the growing identity and autonomy of the individual? Indeed, the finger has been pointed squarely on the field of psychiatry and psychology and rightly so because they have for many decades been the worst abusers of categorizing mental health when they know little or nothing about the mind which is a far cry from the function of the brain.
The performances, especially Eaton’s, are up to the import of the film’s thematic brilliance. I also think that the script would work as a live stage production where the Shakespearean lines might resonate more fully and elicit their full purpose and meaning for this amazing work by Eaton and the ensemble.
Look for a fine performance by Danny Burstein, who portrays Doctor Anderson, one of Liv’s opponents. And check out this film for its performances and concepts that are spot-on. It has been a four time festival award-winner. Rightly so. Check the website for details.