Hidden Gem “Sweet Nothing in My Ear” (2008)

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Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Jeff Daniels, Marlee Martin, and Noah Valencia star in “Sweet Nothing in My Ear”. The film was released on April 20, 2008.

By Syd Slobodnik, staff writer

The period of mid-March to April 15 is designated as National Deaf History Month, mostly because this period marks three milestones in the education of deaf people. On April 15, 1817, the first school for people with hearing loss opened in the United States. Then on April 8, 1864, Gallaudet University became the world’s first institution dedicated to the advanced education of deaf individuals, and finally, on March 13, 1988, Gallaudet named its first president with deafness, I. King Jordan.

Veteran television and feature film director Joseph Sargent had a unique personal concern for individuals with hearing loss.  His much-praised 1985 TV movie “Love is Never Silent,” featured Mare Winningham as a young woman who cared for her deaf parents. Twenty-three years later he directed this week’s film “Sweet Nothing in My Ear,” which concerns a deaf and hearing couple who face the dilemma of giving their deaf son a cochlear implant. This film featured Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress who won the Oscar for best actress as Sarah in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986).

Sargent’s Hallmark-produced film, based on a play by Stephen Sachs that he also adapts to the screen, begins in a courtroom with a child custody hearing. Dan Miller (Daniels) works for a public relations firm, and he and his wife Laura (Matlin), a teacher for deaf children, are fighting over their son Adam (Noah Valencia) who became deaf at the age of four. Dan wants his son to hear again by undergoing a cochlear implant, while Laura and her parents, (who are all deaf) are clearly against Adam’s surgery.

Through flashbacks, we are brought several years in the past to a school play at the Pinewood School for the Deaf, with Dan and Laura participating in their son’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Around this time, troubles begin in the Miller family when Adam turns eight.

Shortly before his birthday, Adam falls over a bicycle in his backyard, cutting his leg badly, and Dan rushes him to the emergency room. The ER doctor wonder why Adam isn’t using hearing aids. Then after asking several more questions, the doctor tells Dan about advancements in cochlear implants and how the quality of Adam’s life could be much improved with him hearing again. He recommends a nearby Hudson Institute. Soon, Dan begins online research and learns how effective implants have become; then he decides to broach the subject with Laura, knowing quite well she doesn’t regard herself or Adam as disabled.

During the course of the custody trial, a specialist from a school for deaf individuals testifies that cochlear implants are too invasive and that signing is a natural and effective form of communication. By contrast, a young deaf mother with an implant states that her deaf son’s life was miraculously changed by his implant and the new-found ability of hearing. The decision of the court custody hearing threatens to tear the Millers apart.

The film effectively provides a clear sense of the culture of deaf people, showing not only how some regarded American Sign Language (ASL) to be a significant communication method, but how others, like the Hudson Institute’s Dr. Flynt (John Rubinstein), feel about offering treatments like cochlear implants to greatly improve the lives of deaf individuals and expanding all sorts of life possibilities.

Both Marlin and Daniels are emotionally compelling as Adam’s parents.  Daniels learned ASL for this role. Periodically, Director Sargent utilizes complete silence on-screen, simulating the perspective of young Adam or Mrs. Miller. Matlin, who became deaf at 18 months due to illness, is voiced by another actress throughout the film to maintain narrative clarity while Matlin signs.

“Sweet Nothing in My Ear” was Sargent’s final film before his passing several years later. For years, he was active in the formation of the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles. Also, his wife, Carolyn lost much of her hearing in a childhood accident.