The actor’s character, Ruben Stone, is no virtuosic artiste experiencing the theft of a precious musical gift. Rather, he, with his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke), is one half of the punk-flavored duo Blackgammon, used to delivering a primitive cannonade of rhythmic sonic assault to Lou’s caterwauled lyrics. This is the scene, shortly before Ruben wakes up to find he can barely hear anything, that sets the stage for “Metal,” the auspicious narrative feature debut by director Darius Marder, who, with his brother Abraham Marder, wrote the screenplay. (Evocative sound design by supervising sound editor Nicholas Becker — who at times uses muffling, sound dropouts and other techniques — heightens the feeling of what it’s like to be inside Ruben’s head.)
After the brief concert performance that opens the film but before Ruben’s deafness kicks in, we’re made to hear the sounds that Ruben hears, and loves, without thinking. It’s not the beauty of a classical symphony — or even necessarily the raw emotion of rock — but the quiet background sounds of breakfast-making in the Airstream RV Ruben shares with Lou: coffee dripping through a filter, the hum of smoothies in a blender, underscored by birds chirping at dawn.
This is what he’s about to lose.
It’s enough. Enough to make Ruben, a former heroin addict who’s been sober for four years — the length of time he’s been with Lou — start to come undone. Eventually, Lou talks him into entering a halfway house for hearing-impaired people struggling with addiction, and this is where we find the real meat of the story.
Under the guidance of the faith-based home’s eternally placid director Joe (Paul Raci), a Vietnam veteran who lost his hearing (and turned to alcohol) after a bomb went off, Ruben discovers his purpose there: to learn how to be deaf.
That message is, quite literally, spelled out on a whiteboard listing the daily chores assigned to each of the group home’s residents. As the newest recruit, Ruben’s bar is set a little higher than the others. In case it’s not clear that Ruben isn’t there to figure out a way to regain his hearing — he’s discovered cochlear implants and thinks he might want them — Joe spells it out for him: “We’re looking for a solution to this,” he says, pointing to his head, “not this,” gesturing to his ear.
In other words, this is a group — and a movie — that doesn’t view deafness as a disability but as a defining condition of a community. Marder makes a strong case for that argument, despite moments, like those just mentioned, in which the message is leaned on without subtlety.
For the most part, the heavy lifting of the film is left to Ahmed, and he handles it effortlessly, in a moving and unforced turn that, while characterized by moments of rage and destruction, is ultimately a journey of acceptance.
That’s plain from the actor’s face, which is all that we’re left with as the film comes to a close. It’s a road map marked by what Ruben has just experienced. In a way, Ahmed’s gift is that he makes us feel like we’ve taken that same path, too.
R. Available on Amazon Prime Video. Contains coarse language throughout and brief nude images. The film is available on Amazon with or without captioning, which includes dialogue subtitles and descriptions of nonverbal sound. 120 minutes.