“What?” Shows the Struggles of a Deaf Actor Looking for a Break

Ulises Duenas


I didn’t know what to expect from What? It’s a silent film in black and white about a deaf actor struggling in Los Angeles and is modeled after the silent era of films. The cast features many deaf characters who are all played by deaf actors, but the lead actor really carries the whole show, making for an unexpected hit.


John Maucere plays Don who is trying to break out into movies despite constantly getting looked over because of his lack of hearing. He has a one-man show that always pleases small crowds, but he doesn’t consider himself successful because the audience is always entirely deaf. The earlier parts of the movie are slow, yet they do a good job of establishing Don’s character and his plights as a deaf man in a superficial business. Don’s dry, sardonic demeanor makes for some laughs and it makes you empathize with him; empathy being one of the film’s core messages. 



Since the movie is mostly silent, the editing has to convey a lot of what’s going on in each scene. Arrows with text to explain sign language and black screens with white text reminiscent of silent films pop up often to keep the viewer in the loop. This is combined with some old-timey music to help create that silent-film feel, but it doesn’t always work. Making the whole movie silent works considering the story, but I still wish there were more scenes in color instead of everything shot in black and white.


 As the story moves along, Don becomes more and more desperate to land a role in a movie that he agrees to chauffeur a director's rich, deaf cousins around Hollywood in hopes that he'll give Don a part. This makes for some good comedic scenes since the cousins break out wads of cash to pay their way through the difficulties that being deaf can bring. Their scenes involve a lot of the exaggerated body language that was used in silent films to convey emotions, so they seem like a nice throwback and an homage to Buster Keaton.



Eventually, Don realizes that he has to make the director understand what he goes through every day for him to cast him in the movie. The director is insensitive to the deaf, even though his own family members are also deaf, and thinks Don would be better off teaching an actor with able hearing how to do sign language. Don has to learn how to accept himself and not require  validation from “normal” people -- people who aren’t deaf. 


By the time the movie wrapped up, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It started out slow, but the cast, dry comedy, and eloquent delivery of the core themes made for a great watch. It makes you feel empathy for the differently-abled in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed or preachy. That makes What? easy to recommend.


Author Bio:

Ulises Duenas is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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