Outside of an occasional supporting performance by Marlee Matlin, the hearing-impaired are a population segment which are conspicuously absent from mainstream films; even documentary films, with the very rare exception of last year’s “The Sound and the Fury,” do not feature this community any frequency. This omission could either be explained as plain-old prejudice, or maybe it is just the common trait of ignoring those we cannot understand. Either way, it is an egregious oversight.
Janet Elaine, a first-time Texas filmmaker, certainly deserves credit for tackling the subject of integrating the deaf into the scheme of things in her short film “Signs of Us.” And yet, I can’t help but feel like a heel to report this well-intended little film is actually something of a bore, even at a 25-minute running length. There is a bigger story here that needs more time and care to be told, but it is not developed in this well-intended but less-than-memorable effort.
“Signs of Us” focuses on a bumpy road trip through the backwoods of Texas. Two sisters, the deaf Leigh Ann and the hearing Lisa, are returning home from the funeral of their mother. A mutual friend named Max is chauffeuring them in a classy old convertible which the deceased willed to Leigh Ann (it is never explained why she is not driving). The ride is a pain for the sisters, rooted in the childhood division when Lisa was forbidden by their father to learn sign language under the insistence that Leigh Ann use vocal communications (including lip reading) for conversation.
So far, so good…but “Signs of Us” never really goes anywhere. The unhappy travelers stop at a roadside cafe (complete with a rock group serenading those enjoying their meals). Leigh Ann shares her experiences with a deaf girl, there are a few flashbacks of the sisters as little girls when the genesis of their communications problems begin, and the sisters then abruptly reach some degree of instant catharsis before the travelers drive off into the sunset, complete with a rainbow in the sky!
The debate between vocal communications and sign language is one which has divided the deaf community internally with heated confrontations, and that in itself would be worthy of cinematic exploration. But “Signs of Us” instead plays like a mild soap opera with a rushed conclusion: the film lacks impact, purpose, pacing and an overall sense of mission.
Part of the problem is the casting. The performers who play the two sisters, deaf actress Rebecca Pacquette as Leigh Ann (who is deaf) and Rachel Kelly as Lisa, have no screen presence and their acting is somewhat amateurish and whiny. It is impossible to care anything about their dilemma based on their command of their characters. As Max stuck in the middle of the sisterly squabbling, Lee Burns has relatively little to do in terms of acting but does provide some diversion in a brief scene where he takes off his shirt and shows off his well-muscled torso while poking about under the hood of the car…although it is never explained why exactly he needed to remove his shirt in order to clang about the carburetor.
“Signs of Us” deserves an “A” for effort, but the film’s subject matter is clearly deserving of a better effort.