MSPIFF Review: The Sounding (2017)

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Directed By: Catherine Eaton
Written By: Catherine Eaton, Bryan Delaney
Runtime: 93 minutes

Writing a story where the main character communicates solely through Shakespeare quotes could be disastrous. In the wrong hands, it could feel like a cheesy theater warm-up or a high school English assignment. Fortunately Catherine Eaton, co-writer/director/star of the independent film The Sounding, is able to take an idea that could have been so hokey and turn it into something unique and beautiful.

The Sounding follows Liv (Catherine Eaton) a woman who has chosen not to speak her entire life. Her dying grandfather, Lionel (Harris Yulin), who raised and cared for her, invites his friend and neuropsychiatrist Michael (Teddy Sears) to the island to protect and advocate for Liv after he dies, insisting that her muteness is intentional and not related to any mental health issues, although Michael is skeptical. Once Lionel dies, Liv finally starts speaking-but only in quotes from William Shakespeare’s works. This, coupled with Liv disappearing for three days to grieve for her grandfather, leads Michael to commit her to a psychiatric hospital, where she struggles to make the staff and Michael understand her new choice of communication.

The acting in this movie is exceptional, and while the entire cast is impressive, the film’s lead (and University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater Company alum!) Catherine Eaton is easily the stand-out actor. She doesn’t speak for roughly the first half hour of the movie and still gives a lovely, emotional performance. When does finally speak, it’s exclusively in quotes from Shakespeare’s works, which already requires incredible skill to do within the actual plays; making the lines come to life out of context takes serious talent. Harris Yulin also gives a wonderful performance as Lionel. During a Q&A after the movie, Catherine said that Harris wouldn’t perform a single line until he was absolutely sure he understood it, and that dedication shows in every moment of his screen time.

In addition to the strong acting, The Sounding is beautifully filmed with lots of intimate closeups balanced with wide, scenic shots of the East coast. These shots, paired with an incredible soundtrack, create a gorgeous tone. There’s one scene right after Lionel dies that might be one of my favorite shots in film I’ve seen this year: Liv is standing at the rocky edge of the water, her back to the camera, as she scatters Lionel’s ashes. It alternates between long shots of the crashing waves and closeups of the ashes smeared on Liv’s hand, all while this booming, echoing, a capella folk song (which we later see is being sung by a few of Lionel’s friends- including Roland, played by Frankie Faison– at the funeral) plays in the background. It’s stunning.

My biggest concern writing-wise was how accurately the psychiatric field and mental health would be portrayed in the movie, since it’s not an easy topic to write about, but fortunately my worries were unfounded. Catherine did extensive research on the subject, visiting several psychiatric facilities and having two professionals on set as consultants throughout filming. My one nitpick regarding this is that some of the conversations between Michael and his friend and fellow psychiatrist Ed (David Furr) definitely violated HIPAA, but I might only be bothered about that because I work in health insurance and I can’t suspend my disbelief where protected health information is concerned.

My one real critique of this movie is that the way Liv ends up in the psychiatric hospital seems a little contrived. Having Michael be the one to have her committed and then immediately regret it and try to get her out doesn’t make much sense, regardless of his skepticism of her mental stability. There are other ways Liv could have ended up in the hospital that would have still been believable, and Michael trying to get her out while at the same time trying to make sense of her behavior wouldn’t have felt so conflicted.

Overall, though, The Sounding is a fantastic film, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from Catherine Eaton in the future.

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Have you seen ‘The Sounding’? Well, what did you think? 

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