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Review: ‘Her Socialist Smile’ trumpets the ever-relevant Helen Keller

Helen Keller sits at a typewriter.
An image of Helen Keller from the experimental documentary “Her Socialist Smile.”
(Grasshopper Film)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

As if they had been written yesterday, the revolutionary words of Helen Keller speak to the prevalent ills of crushing capitalism and the dehumanization it breeds. “Her Socialist Smile,” writer-director John Gianvito’s experimental biopic of one of the most influential women of the 20th century, revives them for modern examination.

While Keller’s voice, hard-fought and from her own chest, bookends this filmic essay, the piece largely consists of text in white lettering over black: long excerpts taken verbatim from speeches, interviews and letters. Narrator Carolyn Forché, with the academic monotone of a prerecorded guide in a museum exhibit, fills in the gaps and contextualizes Keller’s thoughts between the informative slides.

Through these, her socialist ideals of better working conditions for the proletariat, fair wages, the movement for women’s suffrage, the need to end child labor and to uphold racial equality are clear. Seen then as radical, her views are in fact rather reasonable and still applicable. That said, the dense paragraphs in silent title cards prove strenuous. Since her inferences are immensely relevant, one can only wish that the format were more accessible.

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Footage of a tactile nature, of the sensorial things in the world that Keller, unable to see or hear, could still experience in touch or smell, acts as a buffer against the wearisome pattern that time-tests one’s reading comprehension. A fuzzy caterpillar, a slimy slug, a snowy day, fresh water or flowers covered in rain droplets offer visual serenity.

Keller’s devotion for the well-being of the common man, which led her to renounce alliances and risk her reputation by going against militarist efforts, is also the story of how socialism became a maligned buzzword for those who worship the evils of a society ruled by the few. Late in the demanding yet highly illustrative “Her Socialist Smile,” philosopher Noam Chomsky, seemingly in direct conversation with Keller’s writings, appears to address the systems of oppression in both the West and Soviet Russia.

As we read her denouncement of the Preparedness Movement during wartime, she could just as well be referring to the Republican Party in 2021. Shocking is her longevity and resolve, but even more so how explicitly her concerns fit our reality more than a century later.

‘Her Socialist Smile’

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts July 16, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; also on Laemmle Virtual Cinema


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