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Fantasia Fest 2023 Short Film- White Noise Review- Sensory Overload At Its Psychological Best

Sound was on my mind a lot during Fantasia International Film Fest 2023. Whether it be the booming laughs at Hundreds of Beavers, the cacophony of riotous city sound that in itself is a bit of an urban symphony, or the quiet ominousness of the nearly silent rush of the wind in Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep, clangor is everywhere. It is too much for those overwhelmed by the bombardment of sights, sounds, and smells accompanying life. This intersection between excess, desperation, and pain is where Tamara Scherbak’s White Noise lives.

White Noise
Photo Credit: Marc Olivier Huard

Ava(Bahia Watson) is a young woman who struggles with auditory overload. She can’t spend any time without a great set of noise-canceling headphones without succumbing to intense ear pain. Her head feels like it may explode, and she has panic attacks that coincide with the ear pain. Her doctor can’t find anything wrong with her and wants her to continue immersion therapy until she just gets over it. For Ava, it isn’t as simple as just wanting to get used to the noise. She feels real pain that debilitates her. She would love to have a life beyond her headphones but hasn’t been able to find a way to do that. After a disastrous attempt at immersion nearly cost her her life, her doctor enters her into a trial program that uses a sensory deprivation chamber to prove if the pain is real or psychological.

Watson gives a realistic performance as someone struggling to “be normal” and fit in. Wearing headphones permanently isn’t an option. Everyone looks at her like she is a freak, and no one believes she has a problem beyond the mental one they assume she has. When the pain and the dismissal become too much, she understandably snaps. Everything from her panic, resignation, and later hope is seen in her expressive eyes. She gives a subtle performance that feels natural and displays an uncomfortability that speaks of past trauma.

Visually, White Noise is good, but the sound design is where it shines. A dizzying array of everyday noises assault Ava and the viewer at every turn. We have to believe her pain by experiencing it ourselves. Although the constant heartbeat of incessant noise didn’t hurt my ears, it did put me on edge. As intense as any horror film, I was anxious when White Noise finally went silent. Sylvain Bellemare’s punishing track reminds us just how noisy life is and how deafening the silence can be. When Ava took matters into her own hands triumphantly or tragically, depending on your point of view, it was a relief, even if I now wanted to know how things ended for Ava.

The horror in White Noise is entirely psychological. There is very little blood and even less gore. This is an intimate film about torment. It’s as much about the pain that sound causes Ava as it is the metaphor for pain in general. Specifically, female pain, although everyone has been minimalized at the doctor a time or two. It’s hard to prove something that can’t be seen, and women have been subject to ridicule since the beginning. It isn’t by accident that Ava is a woman being treated by a male doctor. Whether you have experienced sensory overload yourself or have had your concerns minimalized, White Noise is relatable.

The psychological short film is an excellent example of using what is all around us to point out fear, danger, and pain hidden in plain sight. Scherbak’s White Noise, at approximately sixteen minutes, is a quick watch that feels more substantial than it is. With an outstanding performance by Watson, competent camera work and editing, and a stellar sound design, it is a standout. Find all our Fantasia Fest 2023 coverage here.