If Hollywood trade pundits were to be believed, CODA won the Best Picture Oscar because voters wanted a film that would lift them up from the depressing news of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Sian Heder’s remake of the French-language La Famille Belier (2014) has other merits too – a sensitive exploration of the experience of deafness, stupendous performances, and an acknowledgement of the travails of working-class Americans.

CODA won all the three Oscars for which it was nominated on Sunday – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sian Heder.

The Apple TV+ release will remind Indian viewers of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s directorial debut Khamoshi (1996), in which a hearing daughter drifts apart away from her deaf parents when she explores her talent for singing.

CODA shares with Khamoshi its fishing community milieu and the transformative power of music. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the hearing daughter of Frank (Tony Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin). Ruby’s older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is deaf like his parents, making the Rossis heavily dependent on Ruby for communicating with the outside world.

CODA (2021). Courtesy Apple Studios.

Ruby embarks on self-discovery even as the family’s fishing business runs into rough weather. Ruby’s flamboyant music teacher Bernando (Eugenio Derbez) is convinced that she has what it takes to earn a spot at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Ruby’s attraction to Miles (Ferdia Walsho-Peelo), with whom she is paired for singing lessons, is another factor that encourages the teenager to pursue her ambition.

There’s empathy all around in Heder’s screenplay – for Ruby, who deserves a life on her own terms, as well as for her parents, who are understandably horrified at being abandoned by their only link to the hearing community. Leo, concerned about the family’s financial welfare, similarly accuses Ruby of being self-centred.

The chasm between the Rossi family and everyone else is starkly communicated during one of Ruby’s performances at her school. Seated too far away from the stage and unable to lip-read, Frank, Jackie and Leo have to depend on the facial expressions and applause by other guests to follow the performance.

Among the film’s justly lauded scenes is the one in which Frank and Ruby use both words and silence to communicate their love for each other. Ruby’s relationship with Miles too has several strong moments.

CODA (2021).

The performances, whether verbalised or signed, are uniformly powerful, with Emilia Jones, Tory Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in perfect sync as an imperfect family unit. The full-bodied portrayals of deaf characters, who experience sexual desire and petty jealousies just like anyone else, allows CODA to transcend the cliches of the triumphant coming-of-age story. It’s feel-good alright, but done well, coming across as heartfelt rather than manipulative.

CODA (2021).