Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s debut feature is unlike any you’ve seen — and you will see it. The only language employed is Ukrainian sign language (with no translation, subtitles or intertitles), and the experience is both disorienting and engrossing. The general plot is easy enough to follow: A teenage boy, new to a rundown boarding school for the deaf, falls in with the school’s criminal element (pimping, robbery, assorted thuggery). It’s not strictly a silent movie — there is ambient sound, such as footsteps or doors slamming. But it does require a different form of processing, a keen attention to body language and onscreen details.
Our exclusion from the dialogue reinforces the insular nature of this community, with its own codes and dynamics determined as much by economic challenges as social ones. The students occasionally resemble animal pack, roaming the mean streets, their lean bodies projecting a feral insolence. This is not an uplifting tale — there are several tough scenes of violence and sexual assault. And it is often in these scenes that these kids, who move through their world with confidence, seem most vulnerable, particularly when their physical weaknesses are exploited by those who share them.