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Review: CODA

March 20, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

CODA is nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur) and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 94th Academy Awards.

The title of CODA is an acronym that stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and the film centres around Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is as the one hearing member of her family. Despite growing up in a Deaf family, Ruby has dreams of being a singer, something her parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant), struggle to understand.

Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA is an English-language remake of the French movie La Famille Bélier. Heder’s version has gained somewhat of a reputation as the little film that could since it went from winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at last year’s Sundance to being up for Best Picture at the Oscars, and it’s pretty easy to see why.

This is the sort of crowdpleaser that also becomes somewhat of a tearjerker at the end. That doesn’t mean there aren’t faults with the film (there are), or that the beats of its pretty standard issue coming-of-age narrative aren’t mostly predictable (they are), but it’s also hard to deny the film’s effectiveness at times, or the strength of the four central performances from Jones, Kotsur, Matlin and Durant.

The film opens with Ruby on her family’s fishing boat. She helps her father and brother haul in the morning catch before heading to school, and acts as their translator with the other fisherman and local merchants. Her family relies on her for support, and she feels an obligation to protect them from getting ripped off by buyers who take advantage of the fact that they can’t hear.

But Ruby gives herself another commitment when she signs up for choir and auditions for music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who recognizes something in her and wants to help her get into Berklee College of Music. This means more time away from her family, and being unable to assist with their struggling fishing business.

The heart of the film lies in the conflict between Ruby needing to stay home to help her family, while also questioning if it is selfish for her to want to go off on her own and pursue her own dreams in the world. It’s a classic coming of age theme, and the fact that Ruby’s family relies on her as a translator adds more nuance to it. On the one hand, she wants to be there to help her family’s business succeed. But, on the other, we get the sense that she never really had a proper childhood since she has been interpreting for them since she was young.

That said, for a film that has been celebrated for championing the Deaf community, I do think there are some problems with CODA centring its narrative around the one hearing member of the family, and it feels somewhat unbalanced at times that the main point of view belongs to Ruby. While CODA deserves major credit for casting Deaf actors in Deaf roles, it is also another story about disability that is told from the perspective of the one non-disabled family member. In particular, her brother Leo’s storyline feels like it could have been more fleshed out, with him feeling resentful over how much the family relies on his younger sister.

Ruby’s struggle to balance being there for her family and pursuing her own dreams is obviously valid, but I have mixed feelings about her struggle being presented as the main focal point. And, in some ways, the film sets her family up as the main hindrance to her achieving her goal of going to Berklee. It’s here that CODA becomes most frustratingly clichéd as a story about seeking independence from your parents. Bernardo is basically the stereotypical strict music teacher, and he comes across as a one-note character who isn’t particularly likeable. The film sets up some contrived moments of conflict where he makes Ruby choose between their lessons and helping her family that feel pretty manufactured.

If CODA has somewhat of a perspective issue with how it tells this story, it is thanks to the authentic performances of the four leads, who work together to believably portray this family, that the film still manages to succeed. Kotsur (who received an Oscar nomination) delivers a moving performance as a man trying to learn how to reconnect to his daughter, and Matlin (the first and so far only Deaf actor to win an Oscar for Children of a Lesser God in 1986) provides a steady presence as Ruby’s mom. The two of them also play well off each other.

Jones does a nice job in the lead, delivering a good breakout performance that also allows her to show off her singing voice. Durant probably delivers the most underrated performance out of the small ensemble, and is no less deserving of praise for what he brings to the film. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (of Sing Street fame) also appears as Ruby’s love interest and duet partner Miles, and Amy Forsyth rounds out the cast as Ruby’s best friend Gertie.

Behind the camera, Heder does a decent job of balancing the film’s underlying pathos with moments of humour and levity. I would ultimately say that CODA is a pretty solid feel-good film, the sort that lifts your spirits while also making you tear up (the emotional centrepiece involves a moving performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”). Not every beat of the story or how it is told worked for me. But it’s carried by strong performances, and ends on a genuine high note with its touching final few scenes.

CODA is now available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.

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