by Nuha Hassan
Anna Baumgarten’s feature debut Disfluency has a lot to say about how trauma affects everything. It affects how someone speaks, behaves, as well as their relationships, development process, and thoughts.
Trauma interrupts everything.
The meaning of the title, disfluency, is told at the beginning of the movie – it’s a word that interrupts the flow of communication. Baumgarten’s film shows how one character’s trauma results in the interruption of her education and life.
The film begins with an ominous dream sequence, and Jane (Libe Barer) wakes up as her parents are arguing about something in front seats. After failing her final college course, she retreats to her family’s lakefront home. While Jane figures out what she should do to get extra credit, she spends time together with her family. She meets her neighbour and high school friend Amber (Chelsea Alden), who experienced motherhood right after graduation. Jane reconnects with her strict and conservative parents (Ricky Wayne and Diana DeLaCruz), her easy-going sister Lacey (Ariela Barer) and childhood friends Dylan (Travis Tope), Kennedy (Kimiko Singer), and longtime crush Jordan (Dylan Arnold). Her curiosity about speech and communication patterns leads her to study her friends’ conversations and teach Amber sign language to communicate with her son. But her days are interrupted with flashbacks and reminders of the trauma and nights are filled with insomnia – which leads to many disfluencies.
While the movie allows the audience to experience Jane’s discoveries, whether it is piercing her nose or blossoming relationships, the trauma is slowly revealed. Baumgarten doesn’t try to re-traumatise the audience for the sake of creating a dramatic impact. It’s important to show trauma and abuse without exploiting viewers and the audience never gets to experience Jane’s trauma, except through flashbacks that aren’t heavily choreographed or shown in excessive detail. The audience knows where the story is heading and adds a warning at the beginning of the movie, and slowly reveals the reason why Jane didn’t graduate.
Disfluency also looks at how difficult and lonely it can be for rape and trauma victims. In one scene, while Jane teaches sign language to Amber, she can sense that something is wrong with her friend. Unable to speak about the traumatic event because she has never told anyone about it, Jane signs it to her friend. It’s an emotional scene, and cathartic in a way for Jane, as she finally releases the tension within herself. From this point on, she makes the brave decision to tell Lacey and seek help from the police. It’s an important scene which shows Jane doing what could change her life and come to terms with the trauma that she went through. But when Jane and Lacey go to the police station to file a report of the assault, the scene itself is difficult to watch. While Jane describes the events that happened to her, the police officer in charge of writing down her statement focuses more on her intoxication rather than the person who assaulted her. Jane’s discomfort and anxiety are shown as she keeps shifting her attention to the officer’s notes and biting her nails until they bleed.
The following scene is the highlight and where Barer shines the most. Her character explains in tears her response to the rape which, initially was denial. Again, it’s a difficult scene and Barer gives a vulnerable performance. In the scene, Jane retells how she was never certain whether it was rape or not, since the person who assaulted her treated her differently, in the sense that he dropped her off at home while she was intoxicated. The gesture confused her for the longest time, but it made her angry. This scene is reminiscent of a lot of victims that have gone through traumatic events and been sort of confused or unaware of their abuse, and it’s completely normal. Abuse victims are conditioned to blame themselves, and Jane continues to blame herself for putting herself in that situation. But the blame must solely be put on a misogynistic society that continues to disregard and shift the blame towards the victim, and it is present in the movie.
The story progresses forward and unfolds slowly, and there are so many tender moments between the supporting cast. While Barer is the highlight of the movie, her parents, who might have little screen time, and her sister show moments of authenticity and empathy towards a delicate topic. Baumgarten powerfully portrays rape and trauma but never abandons Jane. The scenes are shot in an understanding and respectful manner. In one scene, after her parents find out about her rape through her sister, who told them with the intention of protecting Jane, they want to find solutions for her. Her father reminds her that the best action she can do right now is to report the crime. But the support Jane receives from her friends and family restores her faith. It reconstructs the interrupted flows and conversations with Jane and shows that amidst the fogginess and painful moments, there is always justice in the world. Disfluency might be obvious and predictable. But they are wrong. This movie is important for a lot of reasons and trauma does sometimes need to be filtered to tell the story. Baumgarten does an excellent job of showing how trauma can sometimes halt life and experiences and it is difficult to move forward, but it acknowledges the cruel and horrible act in such a sensitive light. Disfluency proves that quite well, and by communicating the story well, it can leave a huge impact on the audience, especially for those who want to connect the interruptions for good.
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