When it comes to entertainment value versus artistic value, much can be forgiven about a film when its heart is in the right place. Beginning as a romantic comedy, The Sound of Violet has a beginning premise that veers very much into a cloying territory. Once the drama of its chosen realities thicken and the laughs no longer come easy, its sense of correction can feel quite heavy-handed. Normally, such an imbalance would be the death knell for a movie. Somehow, the openly hemorrhaging sweetness of The Sound of Violet grants a few critical pardons.
The approach of The Sound of Violet focuses on a Seattle man on the autistic spectrum named Shawn, played by newcomer Cason Thomas. He works as a data-obsessed computer programmer for a dating app and dreamily looking for his own future soulmate for marriage through mathematical odds. Dating for him, unfortunately, couldn’t be more awkward or challenging with his synesthesia. Shawn’s inability to read cues produces many fizzled courtship attempts and even a few dating app complaints.
Imagine you are on a date with a person that oddly won’t look at you or hold your hand. What messages does that send? Now, switch roles. Imagine you are a person where touching and eye contact are uncomfortable actions of over-stimulation. Imagine not picking up on jokes or saying the perceived wrong thing with a blunt conversational honesty that you cannot turn off. You work hard to be respectful and present and still fail horribly at generating tangible chemistry without those prototypical social graces.
Now, for The Sound of Violet, those behavioral and situational hurdles do create humorous circumstances. For example, when Shawn verbally calls out thin hair on a woman’s upper lip and says not to worry about it when lasers can take care of it, with all the assurance he can muster, you laugh at the fish-out-of-water. The big “Meet Cute” of the movie is precisely such a path of misunderstood falling dominoes.
Using some smile advice from his protective brother Colin (Kaelon Christopher of Biz Kid$) to introduce himself, Shawn strikes up a conversation with the fetching Violet, played by Cora Cleary. The rub is that Violet is a prostitute. His eagerness makes him look like a mark to her. Likewise, the veiled double-talk of propositions that come with her present profession go right over Shawn’s head. They both are having “are they for real” moments by the time their first “date” ends the next day.
Erroneously so, Shawn takes her attention as a real connection and cannot see through the lies of her so-called “audition” appointments pretending to be an aspiring actress. He doesn’t want to comprehend the facts even when his brother and his god-fearing caretaker grandmother Ruth (former Twin Peaks cast member Jan D’Arcy) implore him. Shawn is well diagnosed as someone who is too trusting, too loyal, and someone who grieves badly when wronged. Violet lets all this selfishly happen.
As it continues, though, this is where the semi-preposterous romance of The Sound of Violet starts to wash away the perceived sins. Shawn is truly a nice guy whose contagious positivity sees the good in people. The more he dotes on Violet, the more she feels safe and loved as her true self outside of her trap of servitude and debt pressed upon her by her pimp Anton (Michael E. Bell of Woodstock or Bust). Instead of a long game of playing him, Violet may have found a real man and an exit from her awful situation.
Equal to manufactured humor, The Sound of Violet viewers can watch Shawn’s romantic failures with reactions of sadness as well. Shawn can say the nicest compliment to a woman where she feels the smitten moment to clutch his hand, only to have him triggered, pull his hand away, and ruin the whole mood. You root for these moments to soften. With quality time, Shawn’s comfort level grows with Violet and her own closeness. Taking great leaps, the two come to heal each other’s flaws.
Surprisingly so, these very different lovebirds are played by two first-time feature performers. Cason Thomas embarked on coaching to pull off the traits of autism and, thankfully, doesn’t dial and multiply those qualities to 12 like other actors have in similar roles (see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Cora Cleary is not trying for a cheap Vivian Ward impression. She is asked to hide and eventually erode a mountain of sadness as Violet.
To a degree, her arc has to be more convincing than Cason’s adherence to strict quirks. When the two are together in their isolated and unplugged moments, The Sound of Violet slows down for a very whimsical romance. Thomas and Cleary are beautiful together and composer Conrad Pope lays on a thick and lovely ambiance of piano and strings to accompany their highs and lows.
Following in the footsteps of Stephen Chbosky, podcaster and novelist Allen Wolf stepped forward to adapt and direct his own novel into a major motion picture supported by Morning Star Pictures. Making that jump is a creative venture to admire. The difficult part is when The Sound of Violet and Wolf have to take stock of its realities. Externally, as kind as Cason Thomas exudes himself to be, the casting of a non-autistic performer to play the lead in a post-Peanut Butter Falcon age counts as a near-egregious missed opportunity for underappreciated and under-hired talent. Glossy romance is allowed to be antiquated in its own ways, but proper representation is not anymore.
Within the movie, the believability and survivability of how deep and how long Violet takes her lies are too much. Having an neurotypical person mistake the flattery of a prostitute for genuine attraction would make for a great skit before mistaken identities would wear off and wisdom would prevail on both sides in short order. Extending that from its comedic start into the hefty elephant-in-the-room territory of sex workers and illegal human trafficking, as Wolf does, changes the movie’s tone entirely.
Trying to still paint a plucky love story with those problematic and preachy platforms looming, even if they are warranted, is borderline grueling at times. Wolf and his cast mean well when they say “Loving someone is never a waste” and “Everyone hides who they are until they know they are loved.” Through it all, love can indeed win and the adoration on display in The Sound of Violent is hopeful, welcome, and commendable even in the shadows of what becomes detrimental.