A girl rides her bicycle on a sunglazed afternoon in a typically isolated suburban neighborhood, during the pretty fall season. Her voiceover assumes what we’re all thinking, that this must be the beginning of a sad story. She assures us it’s not. She tells us that the story is about her family and how much they all love each other. It hasn’t even been 5 minutes and part of us already feels how much we’d be fighting the urge to change the channel if we happened on this opening of Anthony Fabian’s “Louder Than Words” on TV. (How infinitely more interesting it would be if the little girl could assume that!) But this is the furthest you can get from a Chris Miller and Phil Lord meta movie, so we’re stuck with a picture that rides on the coattails of its good intentions and doesn’t know how to take a hint from its own title.
The little girl from the opening is Maria Fareri (Olivia Steele-Falconer), who is the youngest of four children and extra special in that her other three siblings are triplets. Through voiceover she explains her role of being the glue in her family, because she was always there to fix things and keep everyone close. Her mom Brenda (Hope Davis) is erratic and loving, her dad John (David Duchovny) is quiet and passive, and her siblings Steph (Adelaide Kane,) Julie (Morgan Griffin), and Michael (Ben Rosenfield) take their characteristics from mom and dad. These establishing moments, not including the voiceover, do well to make the point of how different Maria is from everyone else in her family; she’s entertainingly inquisitive, absorbs all the right information, and has more zest than all of her relatives put together. So when her shoulder starts to hurt and she’s rushed to the hospital after getting a migraine, a sense of panic steals into our thoughts. Surely, this not being a sad story, we’re not about to lose the only interesting character? Well....
The little girl who rode her bicycle and told us how this will not be a sad story dies from rabies, after contracting the disease in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it freak moment whilst camping with her dad. And before you take to the keyboards with shouts of spoilers, we assure you this is no plot twist. The whole film is based around Maria’s tragic death, and how the family copes with it. Mainly, though, it’s how John copes with it, which ends up being the film’s biggest drawback; we essentially get stuck with the most mundane member of the family in order to keep up with the title’s promise of hearing clearer without words. John’s lack of involvement with his other children and his knack for not speaking reaches new heights after Maria’s death. But after reading her diary, where she writes about her wishes of health for all the children around the world, John decides to honor her memory by building a children’s hospital in her name.
If this weren’t a true story, screenwriter Benjamin Chapin would have a lot to answer for. The Fareri story is a real one, though, so Chapin can somehow get away with writing some of the year’s most lackluster and mundane characters out there. There’s a lot of heart here, but it’s the perfect example of why certain stories don’t have enough oomph to translate into cinema. Without a gripping conflict, without interesting, three-dimensional and evolutionary characters, you’re left with very little to work with. Duchovny and Davis are not bad actors, but what can they do with these characters? Go through the motions and get paid. It’s probably Steele-Falconer who walks away as most impressive performance from this ensemble, not that her character’s voiceover and flashbacks helped much. Maria’s narration (she continues on posthumously, in case you were wondering) is the year’s best example of how ill used voiceover can be; squeezing the audience’s hand in case we weren’t aware of how to feel and simultaneously making the film’s title painfully ironic. Meanwhile, the flashbacks keep drilling this girl’s perfection into our heads way past skin, bone, and brain matter.
Towards the end, a character has trouble defining John’s project of building a hospital and John helps him out: “We’re not building a hospital. We’re building a feeling.” What more is there to say? This the kind of overly manipulative, Hallmarky picture that’s too busy overdosing on saccharine and smarm to flesh out any of its characters, or make a single spoken word of dialogue resonate. The closing credits point to how the whole film can be summed up in a pamphlet, which brings us back to Maria’s opening words. She’s right about it not being sad, but she’s wrong about it being a story. This is advertisement masquerading as a story, pretending to be a movie, but at the very least, it’s for a good cause. [D-]