Films have the power to change people’s perception of life. Cinema is considered a way to see life through somebody else’s eyes and experience things that we would not be able to experience firsthand. Short films have the same power, with the added difficulty that they have to make us feel and experience life in just a few minutes, with just a few shots, and yet they can move us and make us understand characters we hadn’t even met some 10 minutes before. They can teach us invaluable lessons so that even though we may have not lived that experience, we can relate it to our own lives, our own experiences. Stutterer, the first film by Irish writer director Benjamin Cleary and winner of the 2016 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, tells a story that goes beyond the screen to tackle a theme at the core of our society: communication.
If you have read my review of Timecode, one of the films nominated for Best Live Action Short Film at the Academy Awards this year, you may well know about my love for short films, especially now that I’m in the middle of producing my very own piece (that I hope will someday be relevant enough for me to write an entry about it). What these movies invariably have is a powerful story with a relevant theme, even if in the surface it just looks like (almost) nothing.
Stutterer, tells the story of Greenwood, a lonely man whose stammer isolates him from the world around him. He keeps his deep inner thoughts to himself out of fear of speaking in public and when the possibility of to meet his online paramour arises, he is faced with having to reveal the truth about himself.
Stutterer is a powerful piece about communication and about the barriers that are created not only by a physical condition but by our own insecurities. Greenwood gradually isolates himself from society and even goes to the point of pretending he is deaf in order to avoid having to talk to people. And yet, his inner thoughts, captured perfectly thanks to an incredible sound design (Cleary himself has said he was a sound engineer before he became a filmmaker, which explains the symbolic use of sound and music in the film) reveal that he is much more than who he appears to be. I am lucky enough not to have a speech impediment, but I can relate to the story, as I imagine many of you can. For instance, when I was living in the US, I had to sometimes keep my observations to myself (when I was in a class discussion or even at work) because I was insecure about the way I expressed myself and I was scared people would not understand what I was saying and therefore would judge me. I think this has happened to many people and these insecurities are at the center of Stutterer from the very first scene: Greenwood is on the phone trying to discuss a bill issue and because of his speech impediment, which doesn’t let him express his problem, he is hung up on. A very small action that becomes an important part of the film.
Greenwood’s way of communicating is the Internet, where he “talks” to Ellie, a girl he is having an online relationship with. He remarks are funny, witty, and because the two of them answer right away, it feels like they are having a real conversation, a conversation Greenwood would never be able to have orally. He can be himself on the Internet, live a second life where he doesn’t stammer, a fact he keeps from Ellie and which later causes his conflict. I personally appreciated the fact that for once online communication was not portrayed as a way of deceiving people in a bad way (the typical “catfish narrative”). Yes, Greenwood keeps something very important from Ellie, but his written words reflect his true personality, something he can’t achieve through oral communication.
In just 12 minutes, the film shows three layers of communication, which are three layers of Greenwood’s character: what he says in real life (a calculated script he then tries to unsuccessfully tries to exteriorize), what he thinks (his statements about strangers and himself), and what he can express on the Internet, which I think is the closest to what he would say to Ellie if he had the chance. In a way, this is everyone’s relationship to communication: what we can’t really express because of our insecurities, what we think, which is deeper and more meaningful perhaps than what we dare to say, and what we really say when we are not afraid to be judged.
What I believe this film ultimately says is that the most powerful barriers in our lives are the ones that we create: Greenwood’s unhappiness may have been cause by a speech impediment but when he is given the chance to meet the woman’s he has been talking to for months, his internal fears are the ones stopping him from doing what he really wants. Fighting insecurities is extremely difficult, but our own happiness depends on it.