Trapped in Silence
At the beginning of the film they label the young boy as "The Zoo Boy"---when we label a person it tends to lessen them, to dehumanize them, so that we can more easily do harm to them. This is the Nazi syndrome. But, as we see almost from the beginning, this boy, age 16, who does not make any sounds, who has been in the hospital for over 5 years, is very human. He counts the number of people leaving the observation room. The speech therapist makes note of this. Both patient and therapist are carefully watching one another, sensitive to one another.
This is the key lesson of the film. This is what great actors alert us to. (See Meryl Streep interview.) Life is about listening, about paying attention. Because the therapist is listening, because she really cares, the patient is aware of this and begins to respond. Later he tells her: "From the first day I didn't think you hated me, I could tell."
The therapist is trying to understand the story the boy has to tell. She is a detective trying to find out various clues and put them together to develop her understanding and her ability to help him. When he suddenly has a sharp knife and cuts her with it, she responds with appreciation for what he has accomplished: "Such a good knife." Instead of freaking out, she relates to him on his terms and he is willing to let her keep the knife.
When she brings into his world another therapist to help out, he is at first upset. "Did you ask me. Ask me how I would feel. Nobody ever asks me." If you care about someone, you want to empower them, you are always interested in their opinion.
In time he lets her know the obscene things that his father did to him while his mother only watched. He expresses how he fled into insanity as a defense against the horrors of the real world. "How can you care about a world like this. Being crazy ain't so bad. A lot of things are worse than being crazy."
It is through love that she is able to help him heal. In one of the final scenes of the movie, where she has taken him back to the abandoned home where his step-father tortured him and killed his sister, he says to his therapist: "You were scared to bring me here but you did anyway. That's what love is." That is what his mother was unable to give him. That's what so many human beings are reluctant to give one another. We so often let our fears stop us from loving. We pull back from full and deep loving commitment to a friend, a lover, a spouse, a spiritual or philosophic belief, a profession.