Ava is a young woman who is acting as a surrogate for Jenny and Max, a couple desperate to have a baby but previously unable to do so. Ava is profoundly deaf and due to a mixture of family pressure and indifference, gave up her first child while still a teenager. Now she’s thrilled to be about to help a couple realise their own dreams.
But when the baby – whom Jenny and Max name Lucy – is born it quickly becomes clear the infant is also deaf. There are silent and less silent recriminations and soul-searching. Max, a musician who always dreamed of teaching his child the wonders of music is angry and distraught and looks into the possibility of implants. Jenny asks Ava for advice and the latter councils against them, saying that there are side-effects and that Lucy’s ‘disability’ may be far less than the couple believe, able to lead a rich life bridging two communities that will love her. But things don’t get better and Ava begins to regret giving up the child, whatever the legalities, so easily.
However when the fights between Jenny and Max escalate, Ava makes a fateful decision that will ultimately land her in court…
As society changes and hopefully embraces better understanding about how differences can be celebrated and still be inclusive, one starts to get stories that look to complicated issues and hopefully better angels. Those who have had conditions labelled as disabilities have found ways to overcome them, work with them and sometimes even prove better at things than others without those conditions. It’s a rich seam to mine in a dramatic sense, especially when the law is still playing catch-up in some areas.
The problem with the latest episode of Accused (now on America’s FOX network every Tuesday after launching at the weekend) is that by the end this feels less like an edge-of-your-seat legal entry (without – expected – unexpected twists and turns, designed to keep you guessing and intrigued until the last scenes) and, instead, more of a traditional primetime story or heart-tugging movie-of-the-week with a few court scenes in the mix. The first episode was a savage, sometimes inciteful indictment of public perceptions and shifting loyalties that left you uneasy to the last. However, despite an initial question of the nature of the ‘crime’ to be under the microscope, Ava’s Story comes across as far more a well-intended and heartfelt treaty on the on the preconceptions and complexities within (and outside) the deaf community. That, in and of itself, could be a consideration well be worthy of your time, but it then also throws in a look at post-partum depression and general fractured communication between hearing couples and it starts to veer a little into a shopping list of social maladies, all important but all set to be wrapped up far to neatly with a nice bow and a big group hug. By the end it feels you haven’t been so much thrilled and intrigued as pleasantly lectured and even lightly patronised and then given a cafe latte and sent on your way…
Despite potentially dramatic elements, every character, despite their foibles, seems blueprinted to be both overtly sympathetic and universally understanding beyond logical reactions. Stephanie Nogueras, who was born profoundly deaf before finding success in the likes of ABC Family‘s Switched at Birth) makes an engaging Ava, the young woman who dealt pragmatically with having to give up her first child for adoption when she was a young teenager and now seems wonderfully adjusted but is finding it far harder to let go of the surrogate child she’s carrying once she find it shares her deafness. It’s a narrative convenience that she’s affected minimally by the first and passionately by the second. Megan Boone (best known for The Blacklist) is Jenny, the wife who has circumvented her ‘uncooperative cervix’ and sees Ava in almost sisterly ways but is shocked when Ava takes the infant. For a character that’s introduced as socially-clumsy but then shown to be acutely detailed in every way, Boone side-steps the contradiction and brings us a woman who ultimately seems far too understanding of Ava when, realistically, the perceived ‘betrayal’ would surely get a far more angry and an instinctive, primal response from some who has so-longed for a child and maybe lost it. Aaron Ashmore as husband Max seems to be just a bit of a dick from the outset, clearly troubled with Lucy’s deafness, blaming his wife for having a distant deaf relative and not mentioning the ‘risk factor’ (?), somewhat aggressive in his reaction to the situation and driven to find a ‘hearing’ solution at all costs. Yet even his brusque, partisan personality gets a Damascus-like conversion when the court-case makes him he sees beyond his prejudices and the abduction to Ava’s heartfelt reasoning. Daphne Rubin-Vega appears as Ava’s estranged mother to provide little more than a boo-hiss factor. Far more effective is another deaf actor Lauren Ridloff (of The Walking Dead and Eternals fame) who suddenly appears for the last act (riding in to replace Ava’s absurdly inept lawyer who thinks deaf people may be unsympathetic – again what the actual heck???) and to help Ava understand that the deafness they have can be a strength rather than a plot-liability. It helps her charm the jury and then, in turn, Jenny and Max… so all charges are dismissed with even the judge almost shedding a tear.
Marlee Matlin, a major force in front of the camera since Children of a Lesser God and a strong advocate for the deaf community on and off screen, is an effective director here, but however well-intentioned the plea for understanding, its simplistic format (covering a complicated situation of prejudices in multiple directions) and overly-idealistic resolution manages to invoke sympathy but little real tension. When Ava asks if Max would insist on conversion therapy if the child had been born gay he says that’s a ridiculous comparison and, to be frank, it is – the script falling into such lazy platitudes rather than go to the heart of salient, difficult points.
Ava’s Story isn’t bad and the very attempt to address some of its key issues is welcome, but it’s ultimately it’s a bland, fairly lightweight confrontation of genuine heavyweight issues and the verdict is that it’s a mixed-messaged, missed opportunity that doesn’t resonate as loudly as it should…