'The Sounding': Film Review

Courtesy of Asya Danilova/Mariya Bulat
Stylish but unconvincing.

A young woman communicates only by reciting Shakespeare quotes in Catherine Eaton's feature directorial debut.

Mental health institutions are not filled with emotionally disturbed individuals, but rather brave iconoclasts unwilling to conform to societal rules. That, at least, is an idea that's been posited in popular culture for what seems like forever, most prominently advanced in the book, stage and screen versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Catherine Eaton's feature debut, which she co-wrote, directed and stars in, is a distinctly eccentric variation on the old idea, revolving around a young woman who at first doesn't speak at all and then, when she finally does, expresses herself only in Shakespearean couplets. The cinematic result comes across as artificial as you might expect.

The Sounding might have worked better as a theater piece — which is how it began — than as a film, where its excessive quirkiness feels all the more glaring. The story begins on a remote island (actually Monhegan Island in Maine, which would serve as a perfect location for a remake of Wuthering Heights), where Liv (Eaton) lives with her elderly grandfather Lionel (stage and screen veteran Harris Yulin, who has lost none of his commanding presence). Liv never utters a word, although there is nothing physically wrong with her and she seems perfectly content. One of her favorite activities is listening to her grandfather read aloud to her at night, usually from the works of Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, her life is about to change drastically, as Lionel, a retired psychiatrist, is suffering from stage four throat cancer (the script's reliance on ironies isn't subtle). As it becomes increasingly difficult for him to speak, Liv fills the void, communicating out loud, but only via quotes from the Bard. Lionel's fatal condition motivates him to summon Michael (Teddy Sears), also a psychiatrist and a former pupil, to the island. He implores Michael to advocate on Liv's behalf once he's gone, but not to make any attempts to change her. "Her silence is a choice," Lionel declares. "If you attack that, you attack her very being."

After Lionel dies, Liv expresses her grief by, among other things, disappearing for several days and then venturing into the ocean, where she nearly drowns. This prompts the concerned Michael to defy his mentor's dying request and commit her to a mental institution, despite the vehement objections of Lionel's best friend/lawyer (Frankie Faison).

Once there, the rebellious Liv finds herself battling the doctors, including one in particular (Danny Burstein, currently a Tony Award nominee for Moulin Rouge) who determines that she's insane and insists that she remain in the facility. Meanwhile, she provides amusement for the orderlies and other inmates with her impassioned recitations of Shakespeare accompanied, at one point, by some hand-puppet theater. You wind up expecting Nurse Ratched to burst into the room and demand an end to the shenanigans.

A little of this quirkiness goes a long way, especially in a lengthy climactic confrontation between Liv and Michael in which she rapidly retorts to his queries with such exclamations as "Ay, there's the rub!" Even a Shakespearean scholar would be hard-pressed to be as wittily improvisational as Liv, who has apparently memorized all of the Bard's works and has an appropriate quote for every occasion. It smacks more of authorial and actorly self-indulgence than the defiant outcries of an unfairly marginalized individual.

That the film proves intriguing despite its overly familiar themes is a testament to the acting more than the writing. Eaton delivers a compelling, highly physical performance, using her endlessly expressive eyes to communicate her character's complex range of emotions and making us care about Liv despite the contrived plot mechanics. It seems clear that she wrote the play and film as a showcase vehicle for herself and, on that level at least, The Sounding fully succeeds in its aspirations.

Available on digital platforms
Production companies: Rag and Bone Pictures, Tanbark Pictures
Distributor: Giant Pictures
Director: Catherine Eaton
Screenwriters: Catherine Eaton, Bryan Delaney
Cast: Catherine Eaton, Teddy Sears, Harris Yulin, Erin Darke, Frankie Faison
Producers: Caitlin Gold, Jessica Vale, Bryan Delaney, Catherine Deaton, Aliki Paraschis, Veronique Huyghebaert
Executive producers: David Knott, Rebecca Skloot, Bruno Kyra, Braxton Pope, Steven East, Jonathan Marc David Doff, Stavroula Toska
Director of photography: David Kruta
Production designer: Rocio Gimenez
Editor: Marco Perez
Composer: Siddhartha Khosla
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee

93 min.