The title of Disfluency refers to disruptions in the flow of speech — words we use when we’re struggling to communicate, like “umm” and “sorry.” It’s a fitting title for a film revolving around an issue that’s hard for most people to discuss but which Disfluency explores with raw honesty and grace, leaving viewers at once devastated and hopeful. The issue in question is best left for its protagonist to reveal.
Based on a 2018 short film, Disfluency follows Jane (Libe Barer) as she returns home to her family’s lake house after failing to graduate college. She reunites with her big sister, Lacey (Ariela Barer), and their childhood friends, Dylan (Travis Tope), Kennedy (Kimiko Singer) and Jordan (Dylan Arnold), on whom she has a crush. They all drink and flirt and go skinny dipping, but a dark cloud looms over this otherwise idyllic summer. Something seems off about Jane.
Writer-director Anna Baumgarten creatively hints at what’s haunting her in a sequence that cuts between the characters getting nose piercings and flashes of needles plunging into Jane’s bruised arms. This is one of many inventively constructed flashback sequences.
While hanging out with her sister and friends, Jane comes up with an idea for how to pass the speech class she failed: She’ll conduct a study of their disfluencies. But she eventually discovers that the ones she most needs to understand are her own.
An effective subplot finds Jane teaching sign language to an old friend, Amber (Chelsea Alden), after learning Amber’s toddler is deaf, which Amber initially denied. Amber’s denial mirrors Jane’s about her own trauma. But once Amber fully embraces sign language, Jane uses it to disclose what happened to her. Not only is this one of the film’s most poignant moments, but it’s one of the most powerful scenes of the year. After an hour of buildup, it arrives as a much-needed act of catharsis.
Sure, it would be easy to give away what happens to Jane, but that would let you off the hook. You could stop reading and say, “Eh, I don’t want to see a movie about that.” With this film — a stunning feature directorial debut — Baumgarten forces viewers to be patient and listen closely to what Jane has to say when she’s ready to say it.
A large share of credit for the film’s power also belongs to Barer as Jane. She delivers a breakthrough performance. In a heartbreaking single-shot monologue near the end of the film, a star is born. This scene lays bare all of the unexpressed feelings buried beneath trauma — denial, guilt, imposter syndrome, self-loathing. Barer expresses them with a raw, unrehearsed spontaneity.
Although it ends on a warm note, the film fortunately doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow. It’s an ambiguous conclusion calling for more people like Jane to tell their stories … when they feel comfortable and however long that may take. Surely some critics will dismiss the film as preachy or heavy-handed. Whatever. What this film has to say is important.
Disfluency is available as part of the Heartland Film Festival’s online offerings from Oct. 7 to Oct. 17.
The film’s world-premiere in-person screening will be held at 7:30 p.m. EDT, Friday, Oct. 8, at Living Room Theaters.