Football games under the lights, a homecoming dance line with everybody moving in sync, high school pep rallies with lots of bass drums banging, a sweet moment of nighttime intimacy between two teens frightened about the future, and the pain that remains after suicide. It’s all there and then some in the Netflix short documentary, “Audible,” a sensitive, smart and touching look inside life at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick.
As entertainment, it will remind some viewers of the NBC series “Friday Night Lights.” (Not so surprising given that Peter Berg, who was the creator of that series, is an executive producer.) As sociology, the film not only takes viewers inside the culture of the students, it offers audience members a chance to see the world through their eyes. That’s beyond the reach of even some very good documentaries that only show us other worlds from the outside looking in. Seeing through the eyes of members of a different culture is the lofty goal of ethnography, and “Audible” achieves it — in only 38 minutes running time.
The focus of the film is Amaree McKenstry-Hall, who we meet in his senior year at age 17. He is a member of a record-setting football team at the school, which had not lost to a deaf school in 16 years as of the start of the documentary. As with many seniors, McKenstry-Hall’s final year at the school is a season of life passages. His coming of age story seems deeper than most.
Like some of his classmates, he is still trying to understand and come to terms with his feelings following the suicide death of his best friend, Theodore “Teddy” Webster, who left Maryland School for the Deaf after his sophomore year and was bullied at his new high school in part because he was deaf. His suicide hangs heavy over the film from beginning to end giving it an existential depth few films and TV series about high school have.
McKenstry-Hall was not born deaf. He lost his hearing after contracting meningitis at age 2 or 3. He is the only member of his family who is deaf. His father left when McKenstry-Hall came down with the life-threatening illness, and not having him around as a child contributed to the loneliness he felt growing up.
“I do wonder why my dad left. Is it because I’m deaf? Maybe. I don’t know,” McKenstry says in the film.
“I do feel lonely. When I was a kid, they would just talk around me,” he says speaking in American Sign Language. “And I didn’t understand any of it, so I’d just go off on my own. When I run into hearing people out in the world, I feel, as a deaf person, I am alone.”
But McKenstry is not alone at Maryland School for The Deaf. In addition to his teammates, he is close friends with two members of the cheerleading squad, Lera Walkup, his girlfriend, and Jalen Perry. McKenstry-Hall says Webster was Perry’s “first relationship … first love.” Along with the parents who adopted Webster, the three friends are forged in their remembrance of Webster and mutual support for one another as they approach graduation and their entry into what McKenstry-Hall calls the “real world.”
The film opens in McKenstry-Hall’s bedroom. It is where he seems most at ease in talking about his life.
“I can’t hear anything,” he explains. “I can’t hear cheering, the fans yelling. I feel their vibrations. I feel their footsteps when they run — the boom, boom, boom of the vibrations.”
He has a cochlear implant, but he only uses it for music. He says even when it’s in use he can’t hear lyrics, but he feels the vibrations and hears the music. Music makes him feel “focused and calm,” he says.
Director Matt Ogens cuts back and forth in the opening from close-ups of the teenager’s face to a stream of images of him and his teammates in battle on the field. By doing so, Ogens skillfully creates a sense that we in the audience are seeing what McKenstry-Hall sees in his mind’s eye as he listens to his favorite tunes and let’s his mind roam.
The images and editing contribute to that kind of identification with McKenstry-Hall throughout the film. The overall look of “ Audible” is impressionistic; it’s a visual stream of consciousness with evocative images flowing one into another often without sound. It reminded me at times of the churn of images and strong emotions I felt in high school.
“Audible” starts out looking like it is going to be a sports film following McKenstry-Hall’s senior season with the team. And it does have big sports moments. His team gets upset early in the year and it’s gut check time for him and others. The resiliency and sense of community shown by team members after the loss are impressive. And the documentary does follow the team through homecoming, riding that strong story arc.
But what makes this film memorable for me are the images. They have their own kind of logic, language and poetry, like images you might have in a dream.
One such image shows four members of the football team in full gear in a loose huddle formation moving clockwise in unison for a few steps and then counterclockwise. Back and forth they go in an empty stadium under the lights at night. With their fast feet and unified movement, it’s a dance that in another time and place might have taken place around a campfire under the stars. Ogens shoots the scene from a distance to make sure viewers see the four in connection to the night sky and a vast darkness that surrounds the field.
The dance scenes are the most evocative whether it is McKenstry-Hall out on the floor at homecoming or Perry leading the cheerleaders through a dance routine.
They reminded me of the anecdote mythologist Joseph Campbell told of hearing a Western sociologist at an international conference asking a Shinto priest what his religion’s ideology and theology were.
“We don’t have an ideology. We don’t have a theology. We dance,” the priest said, according to Campbell.
Watching some of these scenes, you cannot help but feel and respect the power of dance and the profound role it plays in the lives of some of these young people.
Equally powerful is a nighttime scene near the end of the documentary with McKenstry-Hall and Walkup at an ice cream parlor enjoying their cones when she raises the issue of where their relationship is. As they later reach across the table to lock pinkie fingers, you might find yourself wanting to cheer.
The final scene finds McKenstry-Hall, Walkup and Perry along with Webster’s adoptive parents standing at his grave. The image of the three friends in an embrace of pain and support as they look at Webster’s headstone sensitively underscores some of the major themes of the film: friendship, community, courage and resilience.
It’s a silent embrace that speaks volumes about love and loss, more expressive and powerful that any words one might sound.
“Audible” is available on Netflix.
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David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter:@davidzurawik.