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‘What?’ Film Review: Deaf Actor Fights the System in Well-Intentioned Showbiz Comedy

This satire of the struggles of deaf artists in the ableist entertainment industry pays homage to silent comedy but doesn’t entirely hit its marks

While the awards campaign for “CODA” and its eventual Oscar wins brought substantial visibility to deaf performers and issues of accessibility (such as the need for closed captioning and American Sign Language interpreting in media), it remains uncertain whether this moment will yield a meaningful breakthrough for a sector often ignored during the ongoing conversations on representation.

In the meantime, other creators aim to capitalize on this long overdue spotlight. That’s the case of black-and-white, micro-budgeted silent dramedy “What?” from writer-director Alek Lev. After having a festival run last year, the film landed its theatrical release date — by chance or by design — on the heels of the historic victories for “CODA.”

Lev, though fluent in ASL, isn’t deaf himself, so he shares story credit with two deaf collaborators: DJ Kurs (longtime director of Los Angeles’ Deaf West theater) and the film’s star, John Maucere, who presumably informed the screenplay with their personal accounts leading artistic lives in an ableist world.

Fed up with an industry and a society that dismisses him for being deaf, struggling L.A. actor Don (Maucere) hopes to turn things around by being cast in an upcoming action film. But while Jamie (Josh Breslow), the movie’s self-centered director, has no intention of hiring the down-on-his-luck thespian, the filmmaker exploits Don to chaperone his cousins from Spain, who also happen to be deaf, on the promise that maybe there could be a role for him.

Title cards (with scene descriptions, as if taken from a script) and Justin Asher’s jovial instrumental score evoke the work of silent-era cinema titans Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, with the latter’s films appearing on screen occasionally as Don’s preferred diversion. From the onset, the seemingly limited funds behind the project reflect on the sets and use of certain locations. While the resourcefulness is commendable, the production value exhibits the quality of amateur or student filmmaking.

Of its formal choices, the utilization of subtitles in a dynamic manner, always leading with inclusion, shines as the most memorable. Dialogue appears next to the actors for the most part, but when Don’s cell phone vibrates or another sound occurs, an arrow points to his pocket or the source to make it evident. Other than its monochromatic palette, “What?” lacks visual panache, unfolding mostly in simple two-shots and with flat lighting.

One exception to the mostly uninspired visual grammar comes when Don breaks the fourth wall in a playful shot that pays further knowing homage to the early–20th century comedians. To the filmmakers’ credit, the notion that early, silent cinema was inherently more inclusive for deaf people is a powerful point.

Most of the plot points in “What?” — even the title that refers to how others often respond to Don trying to communicate — relate to the character’s difficulty to connect with the hearing majority while trying to explain misconceptions about the deaf community. It’s a crash course for hearing audiences that includes ideas as obvious as the fact that, just like with spoken language, there are hundreds of different sign languages — the Catalan and German versions exemplify this here.

True to the silent-film era that it references, the humor in “What?” comes off as rather broad — and by today’s standards, even hammy — because of the physicality and overacting employed to get across emotional beats. Maucere’s downhearted charisma and earnestness counteract the more cartoonish supporting performances. There’s a kindness and a gravitas to his interpretation of Don that makes the film’s cringier aspects tolerable.

In some instances, the humor derives from the quotidian difficulties faced by deaf individuals condemns how we collectively fail to accommodate those with disabilities and tacitly expect them to find a way around the barriers hearing people have created for their own comfort. In order to communicate more directly and clearly with Jamie, for example, Don calls him via a video interpreter service. Later in the film, in somewhat hackneyed fashion, Don orchestrates an elaborate prank in order to make Jamie feel the isolation deaf people experience daily.

More particularly related to the entertainment business, “What?” comments on Hollywood’s casting practices through the character of Walton (Jeremy Guskin), a well-intentioned hearing actor tasked with playing the deaf criminal in Jamie’s film. A recurrent bit revolves around Don’s frustration as, instead of offering him the part, Jamie asks him to coach Walton in ASL, with the ridiculousness of that request soon escalating.

Not surprisingly, there’s lots of love for Marlee Matlin in “What?” There are several mentions of her relevance among deaf actors and even a scene showing one of Jamie’s cousins worshipping the Oscar winner’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As was the case in “CODA,” all of the deaf characters in “What?” are played by deaf actors, and many of the key below-the-line roles — including cinematographer Ruan du Plessis — are also occupied by deaf craftspeople.

Unfortunately, no one besides Don gets much of an arc or character development, which makes even more puzzling the half-baked subplot involving his close friend Maddie (Amber Zion), a painter whose studio the story visits a handful of times without much consequence. Near the end, the justification for Maddie manifests as an on-the-nose canvas, signifying the need for the deaf community to be seen. Still, their relationship remains barebones; Don, in fact, doesn’t appear to have any strong bonds with other deaf people.

As a vehicle to demystify or inform about the deaf experience, “What?” does offer insight that one would hope to be elemental but that may still be foreign for the majority, who rarely consider the exclusionary challenges presented to this segment of the population. But although some of its components spark with cleverness, it lacks overall narrative sophistication as a work of storytelling art, even if considering the vintage-cinema tone it seeks to replicate.

“What?” opens in Los Angeles April 8.