"Beyond Silence," about the hearing daughter of deaf parents who becomes a musician, has "uplifting" and "life-affirming" stamped all over it. What's most surprising, then, are the ways that director Caroline Link makes this formulaic story not only idiosyncratic but deeply felt.
In the opening scenes, 8-year-old Lara (Tatjana Trieb) is seen interacting with the adults who will shape her life. First is her Aunt Clarissa (Sibylle Canonica), who is teaching Lara to ice skate, but can't help showing off: The tail ends of her coat and long red hair are sent flying by her flashy moves.
Later, Lara is awakened by thunder and heads for the safety of her parents' bed. Martin (Howie Seago) and Kai (Emmanuelle Laborit) are sleeping undisturbed, but Lara awakens her father to tell him in sign language about the storm's frightening aural effects, and he comforts her.
The relationship between Lara and her parents is one of intense love blended with interdependence. Lara serves as her parents' interpreter, their link to the hearing world. This fact makes an already precocious child preternaturally serious and very conscious of her familial responsibilities.
When Clarissa gives Lara a clarinet, Martin sees it as an unwanted outside intrusion into their close-knit, nurturing household. Lara, who plays to emulate her aunt, finds she has real talent. But her love of clarinet music is interwoven with guilt: She excels at something her parents will never be able to comprehend.
Director Link (who co-wrote the screenplay with Beth Serlin) brings these conflicts to a head when an adult Lara (Sylvie Testud) goes from her parents' rural household to Clarissa's Berlin to audition for a prestigious music conservatory.
Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, "Beyond Silence" is by-the-numbers predictable. But Link's poetic visual style captures the fluid grace of sign language and finds unexpected beauty in even the most mundane moments, while very strong performances transform the characters from simplistic archetypes into testy individuals.
Lara's struggle to reconcile her independence with the needs of her family may be universally familiar, but it's also her own.