Though flawed, the film does what it sets out to do: entertain a deeply underserved community.
No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie
Often, if a person is hearing they may not think about deafness beyond the concept of perpetual silence. It’s rare in the hearing world for deafness to be thought of as Deafness—as an identity and a culture with a fully-formed language, with artists, scientists, philosophers, students, teachers, and doctors. It is not unusual for the birth of a deaf child in a hearing family to be received with “poor thing can’t hear,” while it is highly unusual for the same situation to be a cause for celebration, a chance to learn a new language and enter a new culture. The fact is, the hearing world has long marginalized the Deaf. (Few hospitals actually offer ASL interpreters; even fewer police forces—though both are mandated by law.) No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie touches on the trials of Deaf people in a hearing culture and on the less than perfect education system for Deaf students, all while brandishing the title of being the first feature film made by a Deaf director.
In truth, No Ordinary Hero will be, for most viewers, more of a lesson than just pure entertainment (It should be noted that the film utilizes closed captions for both the hearing and signing impaired). The plot here is a simple one: Superdeafy (John Maucere) is a television star, a hero complete with spandex, a cape and boundless amounts of energy. He parades around the green screen set of his children’s show with his friend Officer Norm (Peter A. Hulne). The only difference between SuperDeafy and other TV superheroes is that SuperDeafy is Deaf, and instead of fighting crime, his main objective is to raise awareness about the Deaf community and give deaf children a program of their own to tune into. The trouble is, the man behind SuperDeafy, Tony Kane, is worried his work is doing more harm than good, turning himself into more of a caricature than a role model. But while this truth eats away at Tony, he’s content to live with it until his life crosses paths with Jacob Lang (Zane Hencker) and his elementary school teacher.
Like Tony, Jacob is Deaf too. Only Jacob is a boy still struggling to understand his deafness, one growing up in a house where his impairment is seen as a weakness by his father (James Leo Ryan). In school, Jacob is falling dangerously behind, as he watches lectures listlessly, learning next to nothing, and getting picked on by nearly everyone in his class. With Jacob’s IEP stuck in gridlock with his parents, his teacher Jenny (Michelle Nunes) sees that it’s time Jacob got some help. Jenny pulls some strings with Officer Norm (who happens to be her sleazy boyfriend) who agrees to do a show with Superdeafy for the school’s diversity day. Things go terribly. Superdeafy is the butt of the skit and a laughing-stock. Jacob is heartbroken. Tony packs away his Superdeafy spandex and quits the show.
From here, No Ordinary Hero takes some interesting turns. The didactic nature of the film (which, it must be said, is a family friendly film) is never buried too deep. In the early runnings, Jacob’s father demands that his wife quit coddling their son by using ASL with him, despite the fact that Jacob can hear next to nothing with his hearing aids in and can’t read lips. Most obvious, though, is the detour cameo of real-life Deaf motocross champion Ashley Fiolek—a “look, you can do anything moment” that would have been nice if it came about organically in the narrative.
After Jacob and Tony spiral into their separate despairs, Jenny picks up the pieces. Quickly, she cobbles together a relationship with Tony—which seems almost fully based off of the fact that she knows ASL (though the two have admirable chemistry)—and breaks through the icy heart of Jacob’s father to get him to sign off on the IEP and allow Jacob into a class with other Deaf students. The oddest turn of all, though, is Tony’s swift dive into the world of local politics.
Failing to reiterate the fact that No Ordinary Hero is the first SAG film to be directed by a Deaf director (Troy Kotsur) and executive produced by Deaf producers, would be short-sighted. But it would also be unfair to hold the film to lesser standards and weigh it down with qualifiers. The cast, stacked mostly with long-time character actors, collectively turn in fine, believable performances, doing the best with what they’ve got to work with from Taly Ravid’s script. The limited budget is clear enough too, most noticeable in the hollow and over lit TV style sets, though Jeff Gatesman’s camera work manages to give the picture a measure of openness and levity. The weakest link is easily the score. When not carried by characterless rock and “feel emotional!” songs, Matthew Atticus Berger’s work leans for the generic “this is a movie” score, matching the narrative bumps beat for beat, blending right into the scenery, doing little to create a tone or anything original.
To write No Ordinary Hero off as a predictable and haphazardly constructed film would be a mistake. The film is flawed, yes. But, arguably, it does what it sets out to do, which is offer inclusive, inspiring entertainment to a deeply underserved community. When Children Of A Lesser God came out in 1986, it was the first film in 60 years to feature a Deaf actor (Marlee Matlin, who pops up here playing herself) in a lead role. To say the statistics have been much better in the proceeding three decades is tough. Last year gave us the excellent and deeply profound The Tribe, a brutal and scarring film that featured an all Deaf cast. Which is to say, maybe we are making progress. Maybe mainstream entertainment that aims to include and embrace Deaf culture is possible. What’s certain is that the current disparity is embarrassing.