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It’s difficult to do justice to When Time Got Louder, the debut feature from Canadian filmmaker Connie Cocchia, without discussing the details of a particular incident, which are withheld until the film’s climax. To the spoiler-averse: Consider this your warning.
The gist of the incident, though, is given at the get-go. A young, wounded man is in a hospital bed. His sister sits teary-eyed in the waiting room, while a social worker grills their parents about his living conditions.
This family comes into picture through flashbacks that make up the majority of the movie. The boy in the hospital is Kayden (Jonathan Simao), who has nonverbal autism and an intense bond with his sister, Abbie (Willow Shields). Along with their mother, Abbie serves as Kayden’s primary caretaker. Their dad, meanwhile, earns an income working in construction.
Kayden and Abbie share a remarkable gift for sketching, a gift that lands Abbie a full ride to a Los Angeles college to study animation. It’s the first step toward achieving a dream she shares with her brother: creating their own TV show.
When Abbie leaves for college, half of When Time Got Louder transforms into a coming-of-age tale drenched in L.A. sunshine and stuffed with freshman year tropes. Week one, Abbie befriends her bubbly roommate, who drags her to a party where she shares a we’re-the-only-two-people-on-the-planet kiss with Karly, a tall, charming sapphic (portrayed sweetly by tall, charming sapphic Ava Capri). After a brief will-they-won’t-they, a cupcake war and cuddle session on a beach confirm that they definitely will.
While Abbie pours shots at school, her mother pours cups of tea for a family that’s struggling to adapt after their daughter’s departure. Though Abbie’s on a full ride, the cost of flights and books begin to weigh on the Petersons, leading Mark (Lochlyn Munro) to work longer hours while Tish (Elizabeth Mitchell) looks after an increasingly volatile Kayden, who is distraught over his sister’s absence. Mark even convinces a resistant Tish to tour an assisted living facility, but its questionable conditions only further convince her that the best care for her son is at home, however difficult it can be to provide.
In L.A., the rose-tinted glasses start to come off as Karly grows increasingly frustrated with Abbie’s reluctance to come out to her parents, which leads to a breakup just before Abbie flies home for the holidays. Meanwhile, the news of Abbie’s visit puts Kayden in a good mood for the first time since she left. He even offers to pick up chicken strips from the grocery store by himself, just as he’d been practicing with his dad. They take off: Kayden on the bus, Mark trailing in his car behind.
Overwhelmed by the chorus of public commuters, Kayden slips on his noise-canceling headphones. Then, the worst happens: A couple of bullies pick on him, snatch his headphones and, when he resists, beat him up. No one steps in to stop the violence except for the bus driver, who dispatches for help. When the police arrive, the perpetrators run away and the officers, seeing Kayden as a threat, cuff him while he’s on the ground.
Prior to this brutal reveal, When Time Got Louder plants seeds of doubt about which circumstances are responsible for Kayden’s hospitalization. Snippets of a social worker’s interview with the Petersons are interspersed throughout the film, leading the audience to speculate along with her: Did Mark and Tish rely too heavily on Abbie, a child, to take care of Kayden? And is caretaking without her too much for them to handle?
But when we see it with our own eyes, the reason Kayden ended up where he did is crystal clear. No aspect of the modern world—not the police, not the economy, not the healthcare system, not the average bystander—is properly equipped to look after him. As Abbie tells the social worker, who suggests the Petersons explore assisted care options: “No one is ever going to be there for him more than me.”
A message movie, When Time Got Louder has a heartwarming ending and takes a thoughtful deviation from the typical coming out story arc. Clichés punctuate the movie, which suffers in some scenes from heavy-handed, emotional tones and generic dialogue. But in others, it’s hard not to get lost in breathtaking performances from the cast, with particularly heavy lifting performed by Mitchell and Simao as mother and son. And during the entire movie, it’s impossible not to feel the weight of lived experience behind the events onscreen—writer and director Cocchia has a brother with autism. Her beating heart resonates through When Time Got Louder, imbuing the story of the Petersons with empathy, patience, and love.