The future writer and director of "The Family Stone" was a student at New York's Parsons School of Design when he had one of those little...
The future writer and director of “The Family Stone” was a student at New York’s Parsons School of Design when he had one of those little epiphanies that make it into a movie script, a unique touch that gives a film a special zing.
“I used to see these packs of deaf kids — there was a high school for the deaf nearby — down on the subway platform, fighting, flirting, joking, arguing, whatever they were doing, in silence,” says Thomas Bezucha. “I was just enthralled by this silent culture going on right in the middle of all this noise, the din of the city.
“Sign language,” Bezucha says, “it’s just like dance.”
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So when he started putting together “The Family Stone,” a movie about a loud, open-hearted and liberal New England clan that opens Friday, he thought he would make one character deaf. And he’d have the whole family know sign language.
“It’s mesmerizing to watch. I had to have that in my movie.”
When the Stones argue, insult, charm or console, they translate what they’re saying into American Sign Language so that no one, including the gay and deaf son and sibling Thad (Ty Giordano), is left out of the fun.
“I’m trying to tickle something about inclusiveness,” says Bezucha. “This is an inclusive family. And this woman that their son [Dermot Mulroney] has brought home for the holidays isn’t like that. I’m seriously stacking the deck against Meredith [Sarah Jessica Parker] so that you see her as meaner, smaller-minded than she is.
“And I was looking for a secret language they could share that would shut her out even further. Sign language was a no-brainer.”
It’s not the main plot line of “The Family Stone.” Most of the scenes aren’t “translated” into American Sign Language on the spot by the different actors because Giordano isn’t in most scenes. But it’s a little movie shorthand that, like a daughter’s NPR totebag or the mother’s (Diane Keaton) irritated tolerance of pot use by another son (Luke Wilson), says volumes about the film’s title family. Thad isn’t just deaf or gay. He’s both. And he’s accepted.
“Only three percent of hearing families will learn Sign to communicate with their deaf children,” says Debbie Drobney, an American Sign Language professor at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla., and adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida.
Those families may be in denial over the child’s deafness, holding out hope for a cure. They may not want to put in the years it takes to learn ASL, pushing the child toward the less inclusive lip reading and spoken language taught by speech therapy (“oralism”). Conversely, while American Sign Language may offer more thorough communication, it is spoken by no more than 2 million people in the United States, a tiny fraction of the population. ASL traces its origins to the efforts of 19th-century deaf educator Thomas Gallaudet, for whom the school for the deaf, Gallaudet University, is named. It has a grammar and syntax all its own.
The oralism-manualism debate in terms of teaching and mainstreaming the deaf has been going on, in some form, for centuries. And by having characters sign, “The Family Stone” has sidled into that debate.
It takes “seven to 12 years of training to be fluent” in ASL, says Rosanne Trapani, a sign-language interpreter who is also regional director for Interpretek Orlando.
Those “years of training” Trapani speaks of had to be faked on the set of “The Family Stone.” Bezucha doesn’t want to tell tales out of school on his actors, but in a cast that includes Keaton, Wilson, Mulroney, Parker, Rachel McAdams, Craig T. Nelson and Claire Danes, not everybody was on the same ASL page.
“Dermot has this incredible facility, and Rachel was into it,” says Bezucha, laughing. And the worst? “A real toss-up between Craig and Luke,” the father and laid-back son, respectively.
Sign language has turned up in a few movies this year. It was a funny punch line in “Madagascar,” as a sign language-speaking monkey is translated by a speaking monkey who answers questions such as “Of course we’re going to throw poo at them” and who reads the labels on the crates that tell the disaffected animals where they’re being sent — Africa.
One of the lives in the multistory drama “Nine Lives” is that of a woman (Amy Brenneman) whose deaf ex-husband (William Fichtner) never got over how great the sex was in that marriage. He proceeds to tell her, passionately and colorfully, in sign language — at the funeral of his second wife.
But neither of those films uses it to the degree, and with the impact, that “The Family Stone” does.
“I hope many families see this movie,” says Trapani, especially those with a deaf child worried that ASL is not the way to go. “Acceptance is the biggest part of overcoming the hearing loss. This family did a perfect job.”
During one un-translated moment, near the end of the film, Thad and his life partner, Patrick (Brian White), have just left the chaos of the Stone family holiday. They exchange a look, an appreciation of the winter wonderland they’re walking through, and a gesture. And if you don’t know sign language, you’ll miss it.
“One points and signs how ‘beautiful’ ” it all is, says Emma R. Carbonell, an associate interpreter at Interpretek. “And the other signs, ‘as you are.’ “