The debut feature from Rhett and Burke Lewis, two Utahan brothers with a fondness for autonomous filmmaking, “Billy was a Deaf Kid” is impressive on a number of different fronts. First, the film’s editing and pacing refuses to conform to an MTV-style—where thousands of quick flash images drive the viewer into arriving at the exact same conclusion as anyone else watching. “Deaf Kid” subscribes to an editing style that plays out like a series of vignettes. The filmmakers weren’t afraid to let the camera roll, minute after minute, until each scene achieved its purpose.
There are a few points where an argument for an earlier cut could be made but utilizing longer takes is one of the strongest aspects of the film. Second, there’s a lot here to make you laugh. The first ten minutes alone could have been released as a great short film. The title wouldn’t have made any sense but you’d be too busy laughing to notice. Third, “Deaf Kid” is the sort of film that sticks with you days after you’ve seen it. Yeah, the funny stuff is memorable but the drama is equally so. Touching on issues like domestic abuse and disabilities, the movie purposely leaves a lot of questions unanswered, allowing the viewer to take away his/her own reading.
To briefly synopsize the plot, Archie (Rhett Lewis) and his girlfriend Sophie (Candyce Foster) spend a day hanging out with Billy (Zachary Christian) who is Archie’s brother. The titular character is apparently deaf but his brother hopes duct taping a toy microphone and stereo set to his head will assist Billy in regaining some auditory skills. The trio travel through the streets on a SNICK-esque orange couch, discovering local wildlife, hiding from the police in dumpsters, and basically having more fun in 24 hours than most people do in weeks. As the day presses on, hints that Archie and Sophie’s relationship might not be the strongest begin to add up and before long, it’s clear that there might be some serious issues here. It’s this relationship that serves as the main focal point for the narrative.
While “Deaf Kid” is a strong film packed full of indie-charm, there are a few aspects that weaken the overall project. One is the lack of depth given to the titular character, Billy. None of the characters are really given back stories, allowing the characters’ interactions with one another to fill in the missing details but with Billy, the particulars are more than vague. His interactions with the other two characters relate a disability that borders more on the mental than the physical. It’s apparent that Billy never learned sign language but his ability to communicate through non-verbal means is just as weak as his hearing. For some reason, he doesn’t even shake or nod his head in some sort of communicative attempt. For the majority of the film, his face is a blank slate, his feelings about the happenings he’s involved in almost completely unknown.
There are numerous scenes where Billy is simply left somewhere while the romantic relationship between Archie and Sophie is focused on. These scenes go on for quite a while and eventually, the viewer ask themselves, “Where’s Billy?” Ultimately, the camera will cut back to Billy sitting on the couch or lying on the floor, seemingly in some sort of hibernation mode, completely neutral about everything (and also unable to do anything for himself) until someone comes back for him and their journey continues. Without a more detailed explanation about Billy’s condition, the lack of clarity surrounding his character leaves the viewer with too many unanswered questions that really should have been answered.
In the end, it’s clear that Archie does care about his brother and his well-being. One of the most interesting things about Archie is his feelings he has for those around him. There’s no doubt about the distaste he carries for his sister (Billy’s caretaker). And there’s no doubt that he wants Billy to have more fun and the stereo-taping develops into a touching and sweet gesture. The relationship between he and Sophie is complex, to say the least. Are they friends? Are they dating? Are they romantic? The only kiss between the two comes at the end up the film and wouldn’t exactly melt the wallpaper off the wall. Taking a stab at summing up their relationship here: Archie and Sophie have found themselves in an environment of extremes and neither are mature enough to handle themselves in such an atmosphere. The good times are really good; they’re dancing, singing, and joking around.
When the mood shifts, however, there’s spitting, slapping, and more bickering than an old married couple. Each character seems to have trouble communicating just what he or she wants both from life and from their relationship and what develops out of this is an interesting character study of two people who may or may not be right for each other. What’s great about “Dead Kid” is that the filmmakers have created a film which balances the comedy (and don’t let this review fool you, it’s very, very funny) with the heavier issues in a way I’ve never really seen before.
“Billy Was a Deaf Kid” is one of those festival films that should be seen as quickly as possible. You’ll want to be ahead of the curve with this film. How terrible would it be to be the one person who didn’t enjoy the film because all their friends were talking about it and overhyping it so much that by the time you got to see it, your expectations were just too high. Between the quirkiness, the great marketing campaign, and the music…don’t forget the wonderful music from Paleo, a talented musician with a deep archive of original music, there’s a good chance you’ll be hearing about “Deaf Kid” soon. Remember this: “Deaf is the New Black” is the new “Vote for Pedro.” In a good way.