CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 22 . . . . June 22, 2007
There is no shortage of films that show people with challenges of various kinds overcoming the curve balls of life and doing better than anyone expected. At first glance, Between the Laugher seems to be such a film. Stephen O'Keefe, born deaf, has managed to do far more than the schools of his youth ever thought. Then, his mother was told that there were "places for kids like him." They both proved that wrong, and Stephen is a wonderful success story. His mother and speech therapist both praise him for the things he has managed to overcome and for his achievement. His mother laughs now at the things Stephen did with the hearing aids he was made to wear as a child. One was tossed out of the car window, one flushed down the toilet, one hidden in the dog's food dish - it became a neighbourhood challenge to find where a hearing aid might be found. "The feedback was horrible," says Stephen. "They were big and ugly and made me feel like a freak." With chagrin, his mother states that they thought they were doing the right thing for her son. Stephen appears to have succeeded despite all the odds. That alone would make for an interesting story, and, on that level, the film works very well.
However, there is much more to Stephen's life, and this is what makes this film even more memorable. The fact that Stephen was born deaf almost seems like news to him. His mother recounts how, even as a child, he came home from school devastated that he did not make the choir. The fact that he could not hear or sing did not enter into Stephen's young mind. That insistence on being included pushed him to seek a career that would challenge him. When choosing which direction to go with his life, he thought an MBA or law. He chose law and was successful despite the fact that he had difficulty reading the professor's lips. Between first and second year, Stephen had a cochlear implant placed in one ear. His rationale for one ear is that he wanted to save the other ear for new technologies that may be developed in the future. Stephen thought that the new sounds were wonderful - as if he was being engulfed in a wave of sound. He had to learn how to distinguish the variety of sounds and admits how surprised he was by the noise he made going to the bathroom. Those who have lost hearing and then received a cochlear implant, because they have auditory memory, can discern language. However, those who are born deaf have to learn how to understand. We see Stephen struggling with pronunciation and misunderstanding what others have said.
Becoming a lawyer was not enough for Stephen. What he really wanted, was to do litigation, but since he could not use a phone or follow people's conversations, he settled for contract work and research which took him away from people. He hated this, saying, "I'm a social butterfly," and so he quit and went to South America to help build houses. While doing this, he realized that law was not for him.
He knew within a week of meeting Anne Marie that they would be married. Domestic life, with a new baby, is a challenge. At one point, Anne Marie and Stephen are jogging. Stephen does not have his implant on and is unaware that Anne Marie is falling behind and calling to him. On another occasion, as they plan to renovate their house, Stephen is irritated as he cannot keep up with Anne Marie's discussion with the contractor. Simple situations are made difficult, and at times frustration is felt by all.
Just to make things more of a challenge, Stephen has decided to go into stand-up comedy because, "when you're funny that's how you can really connect with a whole lot of people." This is the main thrust of the film as we see Stephen being coached on his speech, timing and his material in preparation for an upcoming gig. As part of his routine, he says, "The doctors said I'd never be able to speak. I can speak, but no one understands me." Stephen is difficult to understand at first. The film provides subtitles when he speaks. He is very funny and is encouraged to use his situation as material: "Don't talk to me while I'm driving because, if I'm looking at you, I'm not looking at the road." His material is aimed at an adult audience. The added bleeps do not really mask his use of the f-word. Before his set, Stephen admits that he is nervous and when nervous, does not speak as clearly as he would like and this makes him even more nervous. A beer calms him, but having his family and friends in the audience puts even more pressure on him. This is not a fairy-tale story where the main character struggles, but surpasses everyone's expectations. The night does not go well, and he is disappointed by his own performance. Stephen is not sure what the goal of comedy really is. His coach states that Stephen is goal orientated and needs goals to motivate him. Comedy is a great challenge, and, while his set did not go as he had planned, Anne Marie states that "just doing the journey makes him successful."
The film does not end with Stephen’s making the big time. His stand-up career is just beginning and how this all will work out is unknown. However, a quick Google search shows that he is performing in the Vancouver area so he is staying true to his goal of succeeding in comedy.
Between the Laughter is a powerful and realistic film that can be applied in a number of classes. The devotion displayed by Stephen's parents could be a model in a Parenting class; his dream to succeed in stand-up, in Career Studies. Overall, Stephen's refusal to settle for anything that does not fulfill him is admirable. The language may offend some, but the overall value of this film can handle a few f-words.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.