Content warning: mentions of sexual assault
On March 8, a particular excitement infected the audience in the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium. “Disfluency” was about to play, and the audience was not just there to watch a film, but to welcome a filmmaking team of University alumni back to Ann Arbor. Among the crew are producers Danny Mooney (“Love and Honor”) and Anthony Kalil (“Liberty’s Secret”); costume designer Monica Geraffo (“Strive”); art director Layne Austin Simescu (“Grasp”); and director, writer and producer Anna Baumgarten (“Line Dry”).
“Disfluency” is the story of Jane (Libe Barer, “Sneaky Pete”), a senior in college who drops out shortly before graduation and returns to her family’s home after being sexually assaulted at a party. She struggles to remember exactly what happened to her that night and considers how to tell her parents (Diana DeLaCruz, “Caring” and Ricky Wayne, “Bloodline”) or sister (Ariela Barer, “Ladyworld”) and whether to go to the police. The film is inspired by Baumgarten’s own experience with sexual assault and PTSD. In a Q&A after the screening, she described how she originally wrote the screenplay as a short film in order to process the trauma she had experienced. She had no intention of actually making it. But, she said, the story kept “eating away” at her, and “those are the stories that you end up making.” The eventual short got into a screenwriting lab where short films are made into features, and in 2019, with the help and encouragement of Mooney, the process of making the feature film began.
The film presents a raw portrayal of PTSD without the need for graphic scenes of assault. It is a triumphant testament to the fact that a film need not be explicit in order to convey its emotion to the audience. The opening scene, in which we see disoriented shots of Jane walking down a hallway lined with colorful holiday lights as cello music cuts into the theater, instantly puts the viewer on edge. Without seeing anything explicit or even knowing exactly what happened, Jane’s devastation is palpable and enough to make the viewer’s stomach clench.
By not depicting the assault itself, the film also rightfully takes away any opportunity the viewer could have had to question the validity of Jane’s trauma. While we see her question whether or not what she experienced was assault, we do not get to make this call. The film is, in this way, not about the assault, but about Jane’s life afterward, where the trauma she experiences is evident. It is decidedly not just about the trauma itself, but about overcoming it and her bravery in moving on with her life, even if she admits to still not being completely okay.
“Disfluency” is also strengthened by its focus on language, first brought up at the beginning when a professor explains the linguistic concept of “disfluency” — disruptions in typical speech, including words like “sorry” and “like” that become meaningless from overuse. This theme extends beyond the typical discussions of consent you might see in films with similar premises. Jane’s intricate relationship to language extends back to her childhood, when she fell out of a tree and, in addition to being physically injured, was unable to speak for several years. During this time, her family learned to communicate using sign language. While at home, she teaches single mother Amber (Chelsea Alden, “Shameless”) how to sign after learning that her two-year-old son is deaf. Jane longs for intention in language, which she feels it often lacks, and this desire, which she expresses to Amber, is woven into the rest of the film — a unique way of highlighting Jane’s struggle to talk about what happened to her and the question of whether talking about it in the first place made it worse.
“Disfluency” is not only a gripping and powerful look at the spiderweb of thoughts that can constitute PTSD but an inspiration for young filmmakers, especially meaningful to those at the University. In the Q&A, Baumgarten spoke of the pressure many young filmmakers feel to move to Los Angeles and work with the “big dogs” of the film industry. However, she said, what she learned while making this film was that “it’s not about meeting people above you. It’s about rising with those around you.”
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.