Not Just the King’s Speech
Phil Schneider is fully aware that his most recent film, “Going With the Flow,” might disappoint some viewers. First, unlike Oscar-hopeful “The King’s Speech,” it portrays no royalty. Second, and more substantial, as an award-winning Jewish speech therapist who has worked in the industry for more than 40 years, Schneider knows that some people will watch his film looking for a cure, or a sure path to fluency. Yet, in his short documentary it is quickly made clear that there is no cure, that stutterers are not broken individuals in need of a quick fix.
In watching the film, we learn that few people are truly in charge of their speech and that communicating effectively is more important and sustainable than the chimera of total fluency. Schneider does not believe that there is one single effective approach to speech therapy, and rather than telling us that he has all the answers, his film tracks the alternate journeys of two people that he meets in his therapy room.
Both stories told in the film recall that of King George VI, as portrayed by Colin Firth. Having stuttered throughout his life, King George does not miraculously gain fluency one day; instead, he learns to work with the speech that he has. In “Going With the Flow,” Schneider’s clients become the film’s inspirational message — not because they rid themselves of their stutter, but rather because they become at ease with the unique voices that they have.
Following in the success of “The King’s Speech,” Schneider and his son, Uri, have posted their short documentary for free on their website and are currently screening it throughout New York and Israel. Watching the two films, it is tempting to draw comparisons between Schneider and Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, King George’s therapist. Both men are warm, irrepressible and experimental in their approach. Yet the most striking similarity is their talent for fostering deep friendships with their clients and listening without judgment. In Schneider’s words, he creates a “relationship where you feel listened to, cared about and believed in… a place where you can talk to me, and in talking to me, you get to know yourself better.”
“Going With the Flow” begins as the camera lens focuses on the toothy smile of 10-year-old Michael, as we listen to the sound of his voice struggling through word blocks and repetitions. As Schneider’s voice encourages him to use pauses in his speech, we see the difficult, focused concentration that it takes for him not to speak spontaneously. Michael fights his nerves to make a courageous speech at his bar mitzvah, and the film follows his journey from adolescence into successful adulthood. He opts in and out of speech therapy sporadically, his stutter never magically disappears and he continues to need focused effort to use the techniques Schneider taught him. As we watch him become a young lawyer, it is difficult not to feel in awe of this determined young man.
As part of his treatment approach, Schneider has filmed hundreds of his stuttering clients in order to track the shifting nature of their speech. Having sifted through years’ worth of footage, he chose as the film’s second character a young college student named Sarah. To the outsider, Sarah’s stutter does not seem as severe as Michael’s, but we quickly learn that the outward effect hides a deeper problem, buried in shame and loneliness. Having spent years learning to hide her stutter, Sarah learns from Schneider how to be open about who she is and how to find confidence and comfort in the sensation of stuttering.
In “Going With the Flow,” as in his previous documentary, “Transcending Stuttering,” Schneider steers clear of any stereotype that hints at the hesitant, repressed stutterer. It is here that the comparison to Logue breaks down. Unlike Logue’s simplistic approach, Schneider’s does not fall back on pseudo-Freudian analysis of his clients’ upbringing. Schneider knows that stuttering is a neurological condition with a genetic component. He knows that its roots are not psychological but that it can cause great emotional distress that can intensify the condition. His film is evidence that stutterers can be confident people who can learn how to use their distinctive voices.
Katherine Preston is a freelance writer currently writing a book on stuttering.