Not to be confused with the Oscar-nominated docu “Sound and Fury,” Irene Taylor Brodsky’s “Hear and Now” examines cochlear implant surgery through the eyes — and ears — of the filmmaker’s own parents. Both deaf since birth, the couple decides to undergo the operation together at age 65, optimistic but ultimately unprepared for the results. Helmer’s personal connection to her subjects heightens the extremes of their emotional journey, with Taylor Brodsky serving as a thoughtful if admittedly non-objective observer. Sundance exposure should widen awareness, but HBO production feels best suited for TV, where families can watch with hankies ready.
Though Taylor Brodsky focuses exclusively on her parents, Paul and Sally Taylor, this is no amateur home movie. Helmer easily might have expanded the scope to include other patients considering the controversial surgery, only to diminish the intimacy the film achieves. Pic asks auds not only to consider the hearing they take for granted but also to imagine the effect of experiencing sound for the first time after a lifetime of silence.
By framing her parents’ marriage as an enduring love story, Taylor Brodsky suggests an idyllic silent world disrupted by the late-in-life addition of this new dimension. Before surgery, the couple appears holding hands on long, wordless walks or working together to read lips in group conversations. Friends since the age of 3, when they met as classmates at the Central Institute for the Deaf, the pair learned to navigate their disability together.
More “Oprah” than “Frontline,” pic uses casual handheld camerawork and introspective narration to chart their transformation. Though hardly the standard in the documentary world, Taylor Brodsky’s sentimental human-interest approach is far more likely to resonate with casual or classroom auds. More seasoned viewers may find it simplistic, however. “They’ve been daydreaming about sound their whole lives,” she muses. “But what if hearing … disappoints us all?”
Sure enough, the procedure doesn’t go entirely as planned. The operation itself is presented in unblinking detail, yet it’s nothing auds haven’t seen in plastic-surgery and medical documentaries featured regularly on cable television.
A short month later, Paul and Sally’s first hearing moments seem miraculous indeed, as Paul searches for the words to define what he’s experiencing: “That’s a tough question. How do you describe what green looks like?” He drives through the car wash twice in one day, just to soak up the machine’s jet-engine symphony.
But in the weeks that follow, all that changes, as Paul adjusts more quickly to the mechanical implant, while Sally struggles to distinguish sounds, quickly losing patience with the device. Suddenly there is a disparity between them that creates tension in their relationship. At a Christmas family gathering, Paul plays air guitar to a music CD, while Sally sits with her ear pressed to the speaker, relying on the vibrations to detect the rhythm.
Taylor Brodsky’s film echoes her parents’ heartbreak, constantly shifting away from the medical advice (in short, these things take time and demand patience) to capture their frustration. Like the wrenching personal accounts of cancer survivors, “Hear and Now” unlocks the psychological side of their experience, with raw emotion smoothing over the intimate pic’s less cinematic qualities.