Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Nov 25, 2020
1 min read

What do you call it when you keep trying to fix something even when it isn’t broken?

In The Sounding, you call it psychiatry.

A strikingly unique debut from director and star Catherine Eaton, it’s the moving story of Olivia, a 30-something woman who doesn’t speak. She can, of course. There’s been no physical injury, no emotional trauma. She simply chooses not to.

Until one day, she changes her mind and the words pour forth.

However, they’re not exactly her words. They’re Shakespeare’s – lines of dialogue from his plays which she repurposes for her own use. Ask her a question, get a response in perfect iambic pentameter. On your sworn honor? Verily, my liege.

It’s mysterious, it’s romantic — but it’s definitely not normal.

And so soon a well-meaning doctor gets Olivia committed, and a team of experts try to force her into being like everybody else – even though, up until this point, she’s been perfectly self-sufficient the way she is. It’s not that her condition bothers her, you see. It’s that her difference bothers them.

And that’s the conflict that truly fascinates Eaton, a New York theatre mainstay, who also co-wrote the script. What exactly is “normal,” anyway, she asks. And why is being different from everyone else seen as a curse, instead of a blessing?

The Sounding is definitely different itself, and its story gets off to an uncertain start. The arrival of the doctor – a rather mopey Teddy Sears, who falls for Olivia immediately – threatens to launch the movie into the sort of sentimental territory Robin Williams used to mine, with a sloppily soulful healer ministering to the damaged.

And while the wintry New England locations are lovely, the conceit – a tiny, perfect rural retreat populated by only the most erudite characters – feels like a too-obvious parody of the Bard’s own As You Like It. Really, all these marvelous, caring intellectuals ended up on this one remote island in Maine?

But then, once Olivia is committed after a scary, possibly suicidal incident, the story takes a sharp turn from artsy travelogue into cuckoo’s nest nightmare, with the psychiatric team’s bloodless deliberations – staff meetings marked by calm mentions of heavy tranquilizers and electroconvulsive therapy – interspersed with Olivia’s passionately Shakespearean insults, interruptions, declarations. The fight for Olivia’s self has begun, and will continue.

However, audiences eagerly expecting some simple answers to now arise – So why is she the way she is? – might be better served turning to one of those old Williams movies, or better yet, one of author Oliver Sacks’ fascinating case histories. The Sounding isn’t about a condition, but a conflict. The movie doesn’t want us to understand Olivia’s difference. It wants us to understand her need to be different.

It’s a great part, which Eaton well knows – clearly, because she’s worked for years to bring this story to the screen (or, at least, to streaming services). She’s terrific in it, too, pushing last the formality of Shakespeare’s language and meter to make the words real and relevant. But she also has some sturdy support, including the great Harris Yulin as her devoted grandfather, and Frankie Faison as the formidable attorney fighting for Olivia’s right to be Olivia.

Which, again, is, ultimately what The Sounding is about — and why it is so relevant today. It isn’t a movie about a psychiatric condition; it’s a story about Olivia’s right to be who she is. To live her own best life. And, in a world which forces so many people to check one box, stay in one lane — to speak her own truth, in her own voice.

Even if it’s in someone else’s words.

4 stars (out of 5)