[AFI Docs 2021 Review] ‘AUDIBLE’ an ambitious short doc in need of more time


Travis Lemons // Film Critic


PG-13, 39 minutes.
Director: Matthew Ogens
Cast: Amaree McKenstry-Hall, Jalen Whitehurst, and Lera Walkup

The short doc is now available to view on Netflix.

Homonyms are one of the English language’s great delights and allow for clever wordplay. This documentary is a prime example. The word “audible” means an ability to be heard. Comparatively, in football terminology, the word is an instruction to change an offensive play at the line of scrimmage.

A crack shot title if there ever was one, AUDIBLE takes us through the halls of the Maryland School for the Deaf (MSD) and onto the football field, where its championship team is so regarded that teams with hearing ability call audibles not to play them. Of course, an impressive 42-game win streak would make any team, regardless of auditory awareness, wary of standing opposite such a powerhouse. But not for director Matthew Ogens.

As someone who has documented the lives of mortal men and women making a living as costumed superheroes on Hollywood Boulevard (CHRONICLES OF A SUPERHERO), and who also has a few short sport docs on his resume (including one on the Angola Prison football program), Ogens has wanted to tell this story for a long time. Growing up thirty minutes from the school, which is in Frederick, Maryland, Ogens has a connection with the deaf community. His best friend since eight years old is deaf, and even before he would begin his filmmaking career, he shot an ad campaign about high-school football. MSD was one of the teams featured. Flash forward to a half dozen documentary shorts, a few feature-length docs, and the occasional narrative film, and here we are: Ogens homeward bound and partnering with Netflix in making AUDIBLE.

The winning attitude and championship performance of the MSD football team are enough to garner interest from sports fans. But the real story isn’t how those who are deaf or hearing impaired have a sixth sense when it comes to playing football. The real story is the struggles and adversity in overcoming a deafening blow after a loss.

Going from an unblemished record to having a one in the loss column doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. You just get up and move on. However, for senior student Amaree, one of the players and the documentary’s chief protagonist, losing lingers beyond the field. Ogens captures his rage and out-of-sorts nature with Homecoming approaching and what life will be like after graduation. Inside the school, Amaree, as well as Jalen and Lera – two cheerleaders also featured in the documentary – are safe. No taunting or bullying or treated like they were disadvantaged. The same cannot be said of Teddy, a fellow classmate who took his own life after his adoptive parents moved him out of the MSD and into a regular public school. As Amaree’s best friend and Jalen’s first love, Teddy was bullied to such a degree his only relief came at the end of a rope. The question of why the parents decided for Teddy to attend a hearing school is left unanswered, and it feels like a glaring omission.

Where’s the accountability? Therein lies a problem with AUDIBLE. It wants to tell all these different stories on a micro level, and 40 minutes is too short a time. Beyond short profiles of Amaree, Jalen, and Lena, we are introduced to the father who abandoned Amaree when he was just a baby as he tries to make amends with his teenage son. Moments on the field and with the team are fleeting at times, though masterfully conveyed with impressive cinematography and sound design.

I understand not wanting to force issues when it comes to characters, particularly teenagers in a documentary, and allowing the visuals to shape the narrative. We grow to empathize with these select students and how life in the real world will be a radical change. Matthew Ogens conveys the message well enough, but his decision to go short with his subject instead of going long finds AUDIBLE to be too ambitious, ultimately falling out of bounds with no time remaining.

Grade: B-

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