As a mentally ill™ woman, stories about social otherness have always interested me. The complexities of the brain remain a mystery even to the medical profession, and the portrayal of communicative deviance on screen is always a bit hit-and-miss; such exploration is a minefield of offensive tropes disguised as well-meaning artistic choices. Whether through the simpering weakness of the protagonist, clumsily shoehorned romances suddenly providing a cure, or the assignment of villainous traits to all who cannot – or will not – bow to society’s expectations of them, there are a lot of places to go wrong with portrayals of mental illness on screen.
‘The Sounding’ avoids all of these, and instead provides a profound study on the beauty of our differences.
The true strength of the film is found in the character of Liv (actress/writer/director Catherine Eaton), who lives on a remote island with her grandfather Lionel. She is brilliant in many ways – as a proficient painter, actress, and dancer, her life is filled with artistry. She spends her days laughing amongst friends, and her nights listening to her beloved grandfather read Shakespeare, her sparkling eyes attentive, holding onto every syllable. She is surrounded by the natural beauty of her home, the affection of her community, and the passion she has for her interests. Her life is bustling with emotional prosperity.
And through all this, Liv has never spoken a word.
This non-verbal nature only becomes a problem when outsider Michael steps in, intended by Lionel to be Liv’s advocate against the mental health authorities. When Lionel tragically passes, Liv suddenly begins to speak – but with a catch. She develops her own language, finding words from the Shakespeare passages that her grandfather read to her so many times. It’s a poignant response to a traumatic event, and a development that perfectly reflects how literature has the power to influence our entire being. Michael, however, becomes worried about this sudden quirk, and immediately violates Liv’s trust by committing her to a mental institution “for her own safety.”
Whether Liv is mentally ill or not is left up to interpretation and involves looking at the definition of mental illness itself. Perhaps a better discussion would be: why does it matter if she is mentally ill or not? Liv, in her bubble of a community that understood her, lived a happy and productive life. It is only when wider society, in the form of Michael, steps in that she is forced into an environment where she is actively traumatised in order to mould her into the same lifestyle as everybody else. The same methods of communication, the same interests, the same words. The scenes in the mental institution are hard to watch, as Liv fights back with all she has, and receives punishment after punishment from an institution that cannot understand her. Throughout all this, Liv clings to her copy of Shakespeare’s works, the link to her language and therefore, her personal freedom. Though ‘The Sounding’ acknowledges and celebrates Liv’s differences, the film never stops rooting for her rebellion against the norm. Liv cannot be “cured” – because there is nothing to “cure” her of.
This is where things get very personal for me. All too often, those outside of a certain group cannot comprehend the choices of those that behave differently. Psychosis, mood swings, communication issues, paranoia, emotional control, all of them fall under a heading of “choice” that the mentally stable cannot incorporate into their own understanding of the world. Instead of letting people continue with their own methods of living, the urge to cure and correct every single difference is overwhelming. We must act “normal”, even if we cannot recognise in ourselves what this “normal” is.
It is not 100% clear whether Liv’s language is a choice or not – and it doesn’t matter. Because, as ‘The Sounding’ eloquently demonstrates, all of us deserve the right to go against the expectations that a rigid society has set out for us.