The cochlear implant – already the star of another Sundance documentary, 2000’s “Sound and Fury” – is the hook to “Hear and Now.” But the two retirement-aged parents who live like teenagers, perpetually sneaking out the bedroom window for a late-night adventure, are actually the story. These kooky characters, and parents, of director Irene Taylor Brodsky are well cast in a documentary drama that’s less a treatise on a topical medical controversy than a carefully observed study of aging love in flux.
Taylor Brodsky takes great pleasure presiding over the comic ironies that inflect her family’s life. Her mother, Sally, first witnessed in home-movie footage singing a lullaby to her baby in a high chair, is, of course, deaf – but that didn’t keep her from engaging in the fine art of overhearing as a teenager in a mainstream high school: She was the “gossip” editor of the school newspaper. Now, white-haired and 65, she kicks back and enjoys heavy metal music in her car radio at a decibel level one would describe as “deafening” if the driver weren’t already hearing impaired.
She’s isn’t performing for the camera: As it turns out, Sally feels the music. Like her husband, Paul, who would become an engineer and always remain an inveterate tinkerer, she was trained to speak and “hear” through touch: feeling the vibrations of sounds in a cheek, on a speaker, or piano. The film follows them both back to a postwar childhood when hearing impairment was even more stigmatized than it is today. They received a progressive education that was unique at its time, and – after being sent back into the mainstream in different parts of the country – reconnected as adults. The family’s archival footage shows them as a witty, handsome pair who’s survived the hearing world via bottomless supplies of humor. One of the first gestures we see from Paul post-cochlear-implant is a round of air-guitar at Christmas as he puts together new sounds.
Taylor Brodsky wisely sets the thought-provoking portions of the story most often outdoors in a sound-resonant Rochester winter landscape replete with the honks of birds and crunch of boots on snow, avoiding the sterile hospital halls except as necessary. Conflict emerges from the varying results each parent initially sees from the operation, and we are shown surges of insight and disappointment, jealousy and anxiety as they cope with the beginnings of a new “sense.” When the unexpected happens – the director’s parents bore of their own medical drama – the film takes the story to a higher philosophical plane. Sound, the filmmaker realizes, is novelty to the couple, who, after the medical agonies and emotional transitions, find they have better ways to interact with the hearing world. We are charmed to see this engaging elderly couple return to form, fully alert to life’s possibilities, and happy to decline a few.
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