A couple of years ago I discovered a movie called A Silent Voice which is the single most realistic portrayal of childhood bullying I’ve ever seen. To my surprise, the movie asked us to not merely empathize with the bullied, but also with the bully. In fact, it asks us to look at the actions of every individual involved and finds none entirely innocent. If you want a good review of this movie, I’d highly recommend Cinema Therapies beautiful look at it. (All though Cinema Therapy is meant for people that have already watched the movie, so spoilers abound.)
A Silent Voice is a powerful movie about what it is like to be an imperfect human. But it is not only the ‘message’ of the movie that works so well. The animation (it’s an anime) is amazing and the ‘camera work’ and visuals are stunning. The visuals cause you to feel what the characters are feeling. The main character — the bully — is so ashamed of what he did as an elementary school child that he can’t look anyone in the face. The movie reflects this in how it shows each scene — often with an X placed over the face of the characters. The characters are all interesting, even the ones you can’t much like. My favorite character, Naoka, was actually the least likable character and changed the least by the end of the movie. Yet even then you came to realize that she was doing her best with what she knew and was slowly making progress.
Not surprisingly, Rotten Tomatoes has a 94% rating for the movie with a 93% from the audience. This is just an incredible movie and most of us can relate to it. So I was curious about the negative reviews of the movie. Who would actually dislike such a beautiful movie and what did they find didn’t work for them?
Enter Sherilyn Connelly’s review on Tracking Shots. Connelly’s main complaint was how unrelatable Shoya, the main character, was. This is initially the whole point as Shoya is the bully. The movie really has you initially hating him because back in elementary school he bullied a cute little deaf girl named Shouko. Now Shoya has had the tables turned on him. He’s lost all his friends and is now the bullied. He’s planning to commit suicide but first tries to get his affairs in order. Since he stole Shouko’s notebook (that she writes in to communicate to people) he decides to return it to her. Initially, she’s afraid he might try to bully her again but as soon as she sees her lost notebook she is grateful to him and she tries to befriend him. Thus begins an imperfect friendship as each tries their best to make up for the past and forge a new version of themselves together. The movie offers no easy answers.
Connelly just can’t relate to Shoya because she sees him as “a violent man seeking redemption while his victim largely blames herself.” (It is interesting that an elementary school child is a ‘man’ in her eyes.) She finds she can’t forgive the older version of himself that works so hard for redemption. Apparently, because she feels he hasn’t suffered enough for what he did. (“..the synopsis describes his friendless-outcast status as ‘the tables turning’ and ‘Shoya finding himself the victim,’ which, no”) To her, this means the movie “demands investment in the redemption of someone who’s impossible to root for.”
Given how highly rated the film is, clearly Shoya isn’t impossible to root for. Apparently what Connelly really means is that she personally finds it impossible to root for Shoya. But in my saying that I feel I’m making a comparison that is unfair. Inevitably our own life circumstances will determine if we can’t or can’t relate to the story being told. This is the subjective side to art and beauty that will forever be a part of it. I do not doubt that for Connelly this character was unrelatable and that it ruined the rest of the movie for her. For her at this time, this is not a good movie. But then is this a valid review for everyone else?
I’ve often wondered about the purpose of having movie critics. Movie critics clearly have different needs from a movie than do regular audiences. This makes sense given the sheer number of movies a movie critic must watch. For example, we’d expect movie critics to need a movie to have greater novelty to still impress them than a regular movie-going audience. (This might in part explain why movie critics loved The Last Jedi while audience reviews were far more tepid. If nothing else, The Last Jedi was novel as a Star Wars movie — in a way regular audiences found off-putting.) Nearly everyone I know says they ignore the critics and instead care about what the audiences think, but if that were really true then there would be no business purpose for movie critics to exist in the first place. Actually, I claim I don’t care what the movie critics think; yet I still usually read critics’ reviews first before I look at audience reviews. And I often trust a well-written professional review more.
Moreover, Connelly’s review is undoubtedly spot-on for a certain narrow audience — those that are not yet in a position to forgive an elementary school bully trying to clean up his act. Perhaps this is the point: we need a diversity of opinions because we have a diversity of problem situations.