Watching Oscar-nominated films has always been an intriguing thought for me. While I'm not really aware of the criteria that a film has to satisfy for it to be nominated, it's definitely one good criterion for me to watch films from around the world. Since I had a lot of time for this year's Academy Awards, I thought why not watch the films that have won? And here is the result of such bingeing.
I began with CODA. I read somewhere that it was a sweet, simple, heartwarming film that won the best picture award. This got me intrigued. Heartwarming films have become a genre on their own and have been beaten to death in every language in which films have been made. If a film like that has won the best picture award, it must be something special. Hence, this choice.
CODA follows the life of Ruby Rossi, who's the only member of a family who can hear. She supports her father in the fishing business while going to school and following her passion to sing. The story revolves around the challenges that the family faces because of their disability and the struggles Ruby goes through trying to follow her passions while helping her family out at the same time. The plot is nothing really unique. In fact, come to think of it, it is the perfect masala potboiler story that a lot of Bollywood, Tollywood and other Indian 'woods' have beaten to death. And yet, it won the Oscar for the best-adapted screenplay!
I just love the way the film is written. Despite the beaten-to-death template, the film scores because there are no scenes in the film where there is loud melodrama. Sure, the film is about disabled people, but it doesn't make it a tear-jerker. Instead, we get to witness a real family, with all their everyday problems made a bit worse by their disability. There are no scenes that extort tearful sympathy for the deaf family. We root for them because they're genuine and live a normal life. The screenplay deals with the story in a very matter-of-fact manner and with a lot of respect and dignity.
Take, for instance, the scene where the brother walks out of the house in the latter half of the film. He feels sidelined. His ego is hurt. He even blames the sister for being the curse of the family by not being deaf. In any other film, this sequence would've been accompanied by a melancholic background score and a dramatic rain. Throw in a couple of teary-eyed siblings screaming their lungs off and you're sure to reach for the tissues. Here, all of that happens, but everything is muted. We can hear the brother scream with his feverishly fast usage of sign language. The sister is on the verge of breaking down. But there's no rousing score in the background. No rain, no storm. The storm is internal and this whole altercation happens in complete silence, disturbed only by the atmospheric noise caused by the wind.
The performances and the casting are on point. There could not have been a better cast. While we have had phenomenal performances with great actors performing roles with a disability, representation wasn't yet there. But with this film, the missing tile is placed. If you watch the film, you would absolutely love their performances too! It is only for these actors, Troy Kotsur (the dad) and Marlee Matlin (the mom) can we really say that they lived their characters. Emilia Jones (Ruby) is absolutely phenomenal and steals our hearts. She's charming. She's sincere. She's beautiful!
There is one moment in the film where we see a song duet performance from the point of view of the deaf. It's a beautiful moment where the scene slowly goes completely mute. All we get to see are the teary, proud and yet confused faces of the Ross family - the father, the mother and the brother. This is my favourite scene in the film. The camera pans in the audience's POV (actually the parents' POV) and settles behind them. The father looks at everyone enjoying the music - one woman in the audience is so moved that she wipes her tears. The father observes all of this and there's absolutely no sound. Not even white noise. That's the turning point for him. He realizes that his daughter is special and she shouldn't be held back. Troy Kastur nails the emotions of guilt, pride and the sadness of being away from the daughter and so many other complex emotions as Frank Rossi. These performances would take a long, long time to be surpassed in their finesse and authenticity.
There are scenes where we get to see how Ruby feels suffocated and how dependent the family is on her. The struggle, the pain and the helplessness come out very beautifully. Mind you, these scenes have minimal to no background score. They work purely because of the wonderful writing and the phenomenal performances. There are so many such specialities that make this film a must-watch.
There is another nice touch in the film right in the title. CODA means Child(ren) of Deaf Adults, which is precisely what the film is about - the life of Ruby Ross and how she pursues her dream despite the challenges she faces because of being the only hearing person in the family. Coda also means a passage that brings a music piece to an end. This is true on so many levels too! The family's struggles on the fishing front come to an end, Ruby finally joins Berkeley College, the venture of the Ruby family picks up, Ruby's tiff with Miles is smoothened out, her small argument with the brother is resolved, the Ruby family starts to get along with the rest of the community and so on. If this isn't subtext, I don't know what is.
If the reasons that I just mentioned aren't enough, let me give you one more. Doesn't it nag you to find out what makes this film so special that it won an Oscar? Mind you, the story of the film is not something very unique. It's been done to death in at least a thousand films, in the history of cinema! It's a very sweet, heartwarming film that one would love to watch on a weekend. And yet, this film has won Oscars - deservingly so! I'm no scholar on how to evaluate a film. Nor do I understand what's the criteria for nomination or the final award. But, this film definitely deserves every award that it has received. Watch this beauty on AppleTV and thank me later!