Twenty-three years after “Love Is Never Silent,” Hallmark and producer-director Joseph Sargent revisit deafness with a universal theme that contemplates the relationship of a minority group to society at large. Here, the pivotal question involves a choice unavailable to most minorities — whether they would opt out of that status if possible. Buoyed by Marlee Matlin and Jeff Daniels’ strong performances, the Hall of Fame’s 233rd entry suffers from a tepid ending but still gets its thoughtful point across, loud and clear.
The Millers are, at first glance, an idyllic couple. Dan (Daniels) and Laura (Matlin) have a solid marriage and adore their 8-year-old son Adam (Noah Valencia, in his first acting role), who, like his mom, is deaf, having lost his hearing as he grew older. Dan talks wistfully of being so smitten upon meeting Laura that he yearned to speak her language.
After a trip to the doctor, however, Dan becomes intrigued by the prospect of surgically outfitting Adam with a cochlear implant, which would restore some of his hearing. He also begins prodding his son to use his voice, which alarms Laura and irritates her father Max (Ed Waterstreet), a “deaf pride” advocate who resents the inference there is something wrong with the boy that must be fixed.
“The majority always thinks each minority wants to be like them,” Max complains, cutting to the heart of Stephen Sachs’ adaptation of his stage play.
Sargent and his cast prevent the movie from drifting into melodrama, but not all the devices here work equally well. The narrative is built around a court case, unfolding via flashback as the separated Dan and Laura fight for custody of Adam. The dialogue, too, proves clunky in places, with the trial contributing stilted exchanges that create thin roles for the otherwise-able Sonya Walger and David Oyelowo as the couple’s attorneys.
“Sweet Nothing” fares better in conveying deafness, at times going silent to provide a non-hearing perspective while using voiceovers to translate sign language. (The movie is a reunion of sorts: Both Waterstreet and Phyllis Frelich, who plays his wife, appeared in “Love Is Never Silent.”)
At its best, the drama zeroes in on a fundamental issue that overcomes most of its shortcomings — parents’ powerful urge to want what’s best for their children, as well as the conflict that can spawn when they reach opposite conclusions, endangering a healthy relationship. Sachs and Sargent tackle this in a way that mostly avoids simple judgments, and both Laura and Dan come across as reasonable people, with Adam caught in the middle.
It’s a strong, relatable message; too bad that its final words weren’t a little stronger.