Irene Taylor Brodsky’s intimate look at her family’s relationship to deafness and music gives way to melodrama.
Irene Taylor Brodsky’s Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is more memoir than documentary. In a tight 90 minutes, she weaves together a story about her relationship with deafness, focusing on her deaf 11-year-old son Jonas and her parents, Paul and Sally, who are also deaf. We follow along as Jonas, now with cochlear implants, prepares to play Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight Sonata” for a piano recital.
That the piece is one Beethoven famously wrote while losing his hearing is not lost on Brodsky or anyone else in the film. The problem is that this is not the magnetic throughline Brodsky seems to think it is.
This is by all standards a treacly film, but rather than play it for its sweetness, Brodsky can’t seem to stop herself from taking all of it far too seriously. A dramatic and melancholy piano score pairs with Brodsky’s narration as she delivers lines like, “Eventually, Dad found his voice, but I would never wish upon Jonas what it took him to get there.”
It isn’t the sentiment here that feels overbearing, but the way the film seems to want to both explore deafness while making it seem like being deaf is both the greatest tragedy and most miraculous gift on earth at once. There is no middle ground, no room for deafness to be normalized, which on some level feels incredibly problematic.
Because deep down, it seems that normalizing her family’s experiences is what Brodsky wants. She wants to share the difficulties without minimizing the triumphs. She wants to make it clear that their ability to live rich, full lives isn’t merely in spite of their deafness. But her tone works against her.
Every beat of Moonlight Sonata lands with a thunderous thud. Brodksy gives so much gravity to such mundane moments that it starts to feel like a reduction of the deaf experience rather than a nuanced exploration. By pushing the tone so far into solemnity, Brodsky seems unaware that this feels more like a push to pity them — to be thankful that we, the audience, are not deaf ourselves.
Things are further complicated when midway through the film, a subplot dealing with her father’s health is introduced and the whole thing starts to feel a lot more disjointed. Brodsky is searching for a way to tie her father’s health into her son’s journey, but it just doesn’t really work. If this were merely a portrait of her family and she wasn’t so intently focused on making the relationship between deafness and music her focal point, there’d be a lot more room to explore this.
There is no middle ground, no room for deafness to be normalized, which on some level feels incredibly problematic.
Ultimately, this intimate family portrait doesn’t make for a particularly interesting documentary. It’s just not really clear what point about deafness Brodsky wants to make. What is she hoping the audience takes away from this film? What is it, at its heart, truly about?
If it’s about deafness, then ignoring the debate in the deaf community around the cochlear implants that feature so heavily in the film is a mistake. If it’s about her family, then the points about Beethoven that appear throughout feel out of place. And if it’s really about Jonas himself, then there needed to be a lot more conversation with him about how he feels about his deafness, his relationship with his grandparents, and his connection to the “Moonlight Sonata.”
There’s so much more to explore that could have opened audiences’ eyes so much wider, it’s a shame Brodsky misses this opportunity. The film that’s left is, unfortunately, one worth skipping.
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements premieres tonight on HBO.