At its core, the heartfelt documentary “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements” is an intimate, often vérité look at how hearing loss affects three generations of a close-knit Portland, Ore., family.
But producer-director Irene Taylor Brodsky (she also co-edited), in an apparent attempt to enlarge the film’s canvas and deepen its context, uses the famously deaf composer Ludwig van Beethoven and his popular piano composition “Moonlight Sonata” as a kind of audio-thematic mirror of her own young son and parents’ intergenerationally connected deafness.
This approach, sincere and ambitious though it may be, proves less cogent and profound than the simpler point-shoot-and-capture technique that draws us into Brodsky’s distinctive domestic world. Offering a more fully dimensional snapshot of her entire present-day family dynamic and pulling back on the Beethoven of it all might have made this watchable film more wholly fulfilling and purposeful.
As it stands, however, there’s much to absorb as Brodsky, using a strong selection of home movie and video clips and other archival footage, sketches out the history of her parents, Paul and Sally’s, deafness and how it affected them as kids and young adults.
Paul and Sally would eventually meet, marry and raise three hearing children, including Brodsky, who chronicled her parents’ late-in-life cochlear implant surgery in the 2007, award-winning documentary “Hear and Now.” (That Paul and Sally had already been film subjects may attest to their on-camera comfort and candor in “Moonlight,” particularly during several emotionally trying moments. They’re troupers.)
But Brodsky’s spirited 11-year-old son Jonas (he was deaf by 4, had two cochlear implants by 8) is center stage here — literally and figuratively — as the filmmaker follows the musically inclined boy’s rocky journey to master Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Jonas’ piano teacher, Colleen, feels the piece, which the composer wrote in his early 30s as he became increasingly deaf, is too complex for Jonas at this time. But Jonas insists and, with the kind but firm Colleen’s help, learns to play it.
It’s largely enjoyable to see Jonas practice and perform, sometimes removing his cochlear implant so as not to be affected by both the ambient sounds and those coming from his piano keys. Unfortunately, despite the fact that it was his idea to take on “Moonlight” to begin with, Jonas never seems all that riveted by or committed to the process, which takes away some of the potential triumph of his accomplishment.
He’s portrayed as a good, loving kid — he and his grandfather have an especially warm relationship — but also often distracted, immature and naughty (OK, he’s only 11). How well Jonas took direction — from his filmmaker mom or teacher Colleen — remains a question but he appears game under scrutiny.
The movie takes a more involving turn when, at 79, Paul begins to experience what is diagnosed here as the onset of dementia. We watch as the former inventor and engineer grasps for words and memories, must give up his driving privileges and struggles to interact with his beloved family members with his usual engagement.
Brodsky tries to connect her father’s cognitive downturn to the film’s bigger themes of hearing loss, creative drive and the choice to turn within oneself. (The movie posits that, for some, being deaf has its advantages, including the “superpower” to tune out the world on demand.) But it’s all not as much of a piece as the filmmaker implies.
That Brodsky breaks the documentary into three “movements” à la “Moonlight Sonata” feels more nominal than inspired. In addition, more on Brodsky and husband Matthew’s relationship vis-à-vis Jonas, as well as with regard to their two younger sons, would have helped. Mention of the long-held opposition by some in the deaf community to pediatric cochlear implantation as, among other things, a kind of cultural and identity setback might have also been useful.
The movie works best when it focuses on the senses and the specific connections between hearing, language (both ASL and oral) and music. Also a plus: haunting, bittersweet swaths of watercolor-style animation and lovely scoring (mainly by Dylan Stark and Ben Johnson) meant to evoke Beethoven’s fraught aural world.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 20, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles