Director Irene Taylor Brodksy’s Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is, ostensibly, a documentary about her son Jonas preparing for a piano recital. And, as alluded to in the title, Jonas is deaf.
But this film, which Brodsky also narrates, doesn’t trod the clumsy, stereotypical path of a person heroically overcoming a physical challenge. It’s an intimate story about a family that only someone who knows and loves them could tell. (And if you should actually leave the film feeling “sorry” for any of them, deafness will not be the reason.)
Brodsky and her husband, Matthew, have three sons, and Jonas, their oldest, is deaf. A genetic trait stripped away his hearing by age 4, and he soon thereafter underwent cochlear implant surgery to partially restore it.
Brodsky’s parents, Sally and Paul Taylor, are also deaf and raised three children who are not. Sally and Paul are the subjects of Brodsky’s award-winning 2007 documentary Hear and Now, which follows them as they got cochlear implants while in their 60s, giving them limited hearing. (They’re now in their late 70s.)
But it’s much different for Sally and Paul to hear than it is for young Jonas, who acclimates quickly and whose speaking voice by age 11 is like that of someone who’s never been deaf. As his grandfather tells him, “You’re not deaf the way I understand deaf.” Jonas, a sparkly, boisterous and loving boy, is very close to his grandparents — Paul in particular — and the relationship between them is the heart of the film.
Like his grandfather, Jonas shuts off his implants when the world feels too chaotic. Meanwhile, Paul envies Jonas’ ability to speak with hearing people so easily and muses about how happy he’d have been to play piano like Jonas.
The movie drives us toward Jonas’ big piano recital, for which he has seven months to prepare. He tells his piano teacher, Colleen Connolly — a warm, demanding presence — that he wants to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” She tells him the piece is too hard for him, but his shaggy-haired charm eventually wears her down.
The reason for Jonas’ determination to learn the piece is never stated, but it’s easy to assume that it’s because Beethoven wrote the piece as he was losing his hearing — by age 46, the composer was completely deaf — and that Jonas relates to him for that reason.
Beethoven’s story is woven throughout the film via animated watercolor illustrations — vibrant yet sad imagery that’s somewhat of a blend between Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch — and his compositions provide the soundtrack. At no point is Jonas portrayed as a prodigy, but neither are we worried he won’t be able to pull off the performance. He’s just a bright tween who gets bored, plays a lot of video games and expects Altoids from Colleen when he doesn’t screw up the music.
As Jonas prepares, we get a heartrending parallel story about his grandfather’s early stage Alzheimer’s, and how Paul, Sally and Brodsky deal with it. Paul, a retired engineer and inventor of technologies that help people communicate, is so goodhearted and sweet that it’s particularly painful to see him face decline.
Moonlight Sonata is a lovely, layered portrait of a family, which Brodsky has called “an ode to sound and silence.” After seeing it, you may agree that those are both gifts we shouldn’t ever take for granted.
Starts Oct. 11 at Pisgah Film House