When we’re flooded with emotion, good or bad, we say we’re “speechless.” It’s a hyperbolic phrase, sure, but a nice means of describing the indescribable. It means our feelings are so strong that words couldn’t possibly match them.
But for about one percent of the population, “speechless” isn’t a metaphor. Seventy million people worldwide speak with a stutter, which is, for some, an almost impenetrable barrier between inner thoughts and outward communication. Your mind reels with thoughtful questions and compliments, but when you open your mouth to share them, an invisible blockade holds them in. Sounds a little like a promising, jitters-inducing first date, right?
Writer and director Benjamin Cleary seems to think so; his Academy Award-winning short film “Stutterer” explores the self-conscious nerves and utter excitement of dating, through the eyes and mouth of a man with a stutter. The movie is Cleary's first, produced last year after he graduated from the London School of Film.
The flick opens with a shot of its cute, floppy-haired protagonist, Greenwood, in the midst of an experience most of us can relate to: a maddening call with a cell service operator. The frustration of the conversation is compounded by his inability to articulate his request before he’s disconnected, again and again.
It requires a good deal of concentration for Greenwood to form sentences, so viewers are given an inside look into his psyche through imagery, including lingering shots of his book-littered bedroom and the similarly decked-out living room of his childhood home where he plays chess with his dad. We learn about his day job as a typographer, designing visual representations of the words he finds difficult to verbalize. And, we’re granted access to his fast-running interior monologue -- what his voice would sound like if he could speak more fluidly.
The contrast between his noisy, anxious thoughts and quiet demeanor is what makes the film so powerful; any introvert can relate to the feeling of clamming up during public discussions. That Cleary makes this specific affliction universal in the span of just 12 minutes might explain why “Stutterer” took home the Best Live Action Short award at the Oscars this year, in spite of being up against some impressive contenders.
The movie is also a nod to the changing nature of romance in a time when Tinder and OkCupid have become viable, if not preferable, modes of meeting a match. We watch the film’s protagonist digitally banter with a girl he’s been involved with for months; we watch him panic when she -- Ellie -- suggests finally meeting in person; we watch him totally ghost, only to apologize and set up a date.
Although his situation is unique, it’s also relatable. In his head, he practices what he’ll say when he arrives, giving new meaning to an old trope. For a short moment, it’s easy for the viewer to imagine exactly what it feels like to have a stutter, to always feel speechless.
And what is storytelling for, if not to generate the highest form of empathy, to plant us smack in the middle of another person’s experience?
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