Ann Marie “Jade” Bryan is promoting her new work as “the first ever feature film about deaf black culture.” Indeed, it is startling to see a new drama with a deaf central character (“Children of a Lesser God” came out nearly a quarter-century ago) and it is equally rare to find someone other than Tyler Perry making a contemporary film with African Americans as the romantic leads.
In this New York-based film, lovely young Somalia (Sylvie Marc-Charles) is an aspiring fashion design student. She is also deaf and most of her friends are also hearing impaired. Somalia falls in love with Zavier (Omar Jaslin), an aspiring songwriter-musician. But his increasing insensitivity to Somalia’s communications difficulties creates friction, and she begins to question the challenges of maintaining a relationship with someone who cannot understand her distinctive needs. Somalia and her friends intensely debate the question of whether deaf people should stay within their community or whether it makes sense to seek out friendships and love affairs in the hearing world.
Bryan, who is deaf, brings remarkable insight to her characters’ development, and the film bubbles beautifully with unexpected and original happenings. The Somalia-Zavier tensions create a genuinely compelling experience, as two strong-willed people simultaneously find themselves at odds and in unity.
Marc-Charles’ beauty and vivacity makes her one of the most intriguing new performers to grace the indie film scene. Her Somalia is not, by any stretch, a one-dimensional stock character. She is a fully textured woman who is capable of graceful and, on occasion, graceless behavior (particularly when she becomes jealous when Zavier chats up a pretty woman at a party). Jaslin is equally fine, offering a complex portrait of a young man whose maturity is clearly a work in progress.
The actors lead a wonderful ensemble cast who approach their work with a style and self-confident maturity that is often lacking in today’s indie film. Special kudos are in order for McKarty Chaunce in an inspired supporting performance as a emotionally sensitive drummer who teaches Zavier some important lessons in bridging the gap between the hearing and the hearing-impaired.
One might quibble that the two-hour film would benefit from a tighter running length, especially in the story’s latter stages when a rooftop girl-power pep-talk and the climax in a music club ramble a bit too long. Nonetheless, this is a remarkable feature film and one of the most original and exciting under-the-radar achievements of the year.