‘The Unheard’: The Horrors Lost In Transmission

Boston Underground Film Festival The Unheard

I remember the chill that ran through me when my pediatrician asked my mom: “Why didn’t you bring her in sooner?”. That was when I learned to doubt my mother. It was the moment I felt how heavy the weight of mistrust is when directed at someone whose purpose was supposed to be dedicated to protecting you.

Of course, mothers, like all of us, are fallible creatures. Besides, my ears were wired to self-destruct. From infancy until my pre-teens, I had an ear infection about every six months. The infections rotated ears as if they wanted to take turns divvying up punishment. Surgeries put tubes in and out and in and out. I couldn’t go underwater. I had to plug my ears during showers. My childhood was a carousel of Amoxicillin, intake forms, bed rest, and old VHS tapes I’d watch when I couldn’t stand without vomiting. That infection, though, I remember distinctly from all the others because it led to my final operation and ultimately, the relief I sought for so long. Myringotomy: the process of poking a hole within a patient’s eardrums to drain fluid from the middle ear.

Why did it take them so long to figure that out? I don’t know. But it’s left me with the deepest well of empathy for those who have a much longer and more complicated journey with ear surgeries and hearing loss. When I watched The Unheard, seeing Lachlan Watson embody Chole—someone who lost her hearing due to illness—I immediately became intrigued at how this portrayal would land. While I never fully lost my hearing, they thought, after all the infections and fiddling with my ear canals, I would. Often, I’d sit in a room with earphones on listening to pings until I couldn’t hear the ping anymore.

For a time, my hearing loss increased. My speech was delayed, so I learned how to read lips. For years, I had speech therapy, practicing moving my lips with a mirror so ring wouldn’t look like wing. I stopped speaking for two years because I was embarrassed by the way people looked at me when I opened my mouth and didn’t sound how I was supposed to sound. What haunted me most of all wasn’t potentially losing my hearing but the idea of being forever misunderstood. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t hear what I said as I meant it. How come what they said wouldn’t come to me, not fully? Would I be stuck in static? Will I know what I lost in the transmission?

Directed by Jeffrey A. Brown and co-written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen, The Unheard excels the most at showing these frustrating questions for someone born hearing and on the long journey to possibly regain their hearing through operations. One standout moment of this is when we see Chloe watch a mother and daughter signing. They sign to her but she can’t respond because she didn’t grow up around someone to teach her ASL. That longing for communication amidst an experience of disconnection is heartbreaking to watch.

The heart of The Unheard is about being heard, not just in the literal sense of the word, but being listened to, believed, and given the tools to express yourself fully in this world. Without spoiling it, there’s a pivotal scene between Chloe and a character chatting through static—literally—with the desire that the meaning will translate to save Chloe. But this warning comes in fractured parts. The dread works best here as it highlights the disparity between a hearing world that doesn’t prioritize the Deaf community.

In horror, I’ve seen Deafness or hearing-impaired individuals used as plot devices. Hush makes its main character’s Deafness a novelty for its formulaic home-invasion setup. The Quiet Place positions the parental characters in a way that seemingly only gives them empathy for their daughter’s Deafness once they too have to live in a silenced world. But The Unheard? This is one of the first times I’ve seen an empathetic exploration of an individual processing their disability and wrestling with the hope, dangers, and dread of experimental surgery.

Yes, there are some missteps. Watson sometimes interacts with others a bit too quickly verbally, and it doesn’t show how adept their character is at reading lips. Chloe’s speak-to-text runs quicker and more accurately and with reality-bending WiFi than most accessibility devices. Most obviously, Watson themselves isn’t hearing impaired. While the director expressed at the Boston Underground Film Festival world premiere that The Unheard isn’t about or for the Deaf community, a more accurate representation of Chloe would have landed stronger.

However, the most effective part of this film is Colin Alexander’s impeccable sound design. Somehow, he articulates ear trauma. There’s this crescendo-like effect he uses to mimic the pressure that reverberates in your ears, building until you wonder if it’s possible for your head to pop like a balloon. That’s usually when the bleeding starts, and, true to form, that’s when Chloe’s ears bleed too. The air around you becomes muffled as if its molecules have mutated into cotton balls. There’s a fuzziness to what sounds you can hear.

Imagine speaking through layers of pillows. Words lose edges. But you still feel motion and even hear a whooshing like you’re standing under a wind tunnel. That’s the world moving. We hear all this in the film. We feel Chloe’s levels of hearing differing but never lose the truth that she can feel vibrations too. But the best part about his score is its ringing sound. The specific pitch he uses is so accurate to that ringing sensation of ear trauma that I had to cover my ears in the cinema. For a moment, I thought my infections returned and it terrified me.

Horror is no stranger to using accessibility as a form of terror: People lose fingers, even entire hands to demons. But giving and taking someone’s hearing away taps into something more harrowingly primal in us, not just losing recognition of our reality as we know it, but that we can fall out of others’ frame of reference. By the end of this runtime, this film will leave you questioning how hearing-centric your world is and why. We want Chloe to get her hearing back. We root for her. And we dread the operation failing. While it’s not made for the Deaf community, you can’t argue that The Unheard challenges us to question what voices we listen to and why.



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