CODA Has Something Beautiful to Say, Sing, and Sign

The Streaming Film Review: Apple +’s “CODA

By Ross

There are plenty of pretty voices with nothing to say,” Mr. V. asks. “Do you have something to say?” Well, CODA certainly seems to know the answer. Even if it is wrapped up in some traditional themed paper.

Singing strong onboard her family’s fishing boat, Ruby Rossi, portrayed intriguingly by the captivating Emilia Jones (“Locke & Key“), unabashedly belts out Etta James’s classic ‘Something’s Gotta Hold on Me‘ loud and clear, catching us in her net with ease. It’s a moment of wild teenage abandonment that pulls us in, eliciting a strong feeling of attachment to this complicated 17-year-old high school student before the credits even finish. Her voice has dark tones of deliciousness that reverberate all around her, although the two men working beside her; her father, Frank, played beautifully by a very funny (and Oscar-nominated) Troy Kotsur (“The Mandalorian“) and her handsome older brother, Leo, strongly portrayed by the sexy Daniel Durant (“You“), seemingly aren’t affected in the slightest by her vocal bravado as they sort through today’s catch. It’s as if they haven’t heard a note, or are purposefully ignoring her. For someone who had no real idea what this film was about (just how I like it), the dichotomy and disconnect are striking, but the three-time Oscar-nominated premise soon reveals itself. Ruby’s family, including her mom, Jackie, played wisely by the phenomenal Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God“) are all deaf, except for her. And there, in that concisely sewn net, Rudy is caught, and “CODA” finds its reason to sing.

At first, I was unaware of what CODA meant or stood for. I kept watching for signs of its uncovering (Is it the name of the boat? Or a slang term for something?), but as this remake of the 2014 French comedy-drama “La Famille Bélier” begins to reveal itself, the reason becomes clear. The title is referring to what Rudy is, in essence, and the foundations of her troubling teenage trap. She literally is a CODA; a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults, and one who, oddly enough to her parents, secretly dreams of becoming a singer. “If I was blind, would it make you want to paint?” Ruby’s mother disturbingly asks, for a variety of complicated and fascinating reasons. The question strikes hard, unpacking a resentful construct that exists solidly within the family dynamic. They need her, in ways we become even more aware of as the film drives forward through the waves with an almost formulaic reasoning. It fills our hearts with empathy and care, particularly for this overwhelmed and exhausted teenager who loves her family, yet tentatively sees a dream flying out there on the horizon, like a seagull, far away from her family, just waiting for her to catch hold of and dive into. She is also wildly aware of the huge tsunami-like waves that exist, lying steadfast and strong in the waters between her and that hopeful horizon.

Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin in Sian Heder’s CODA (Apple TV+)

A mega-hit at this year’s Sundance film festival, gathering up a slew of awards, including three Oscar nominations and a record-breaking $25m distribution deal with Apple TV+, CODA, directed and written by Sian Heder (“Little America“) finds harmony in a pretty standardized plotline of a teenage girl trying to find the strength to swim out to her dream, and sing. As it is a teenage girl coming-of-age story, there is also the undercurrent dream of getting the boy she has a crush on, the very appealing Miles, played solidly by the dreamy Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (“Sing Street“). The complication that stands in her way is her unofficial role and duty as the family’s interpreter, translating their American Sign Language (ASL) to all whom they need to deal with, including the local fishing community and the authorities that threaten to ground them.

The burden is strong, and Rudy feels it each morning when the alarm goes off at 3am. She must pull herself out of bed, flip on and off the lights to wake her father up from his slumber, and get that part of her day over and done with so she can return to being a high school student who wants to sing in the school choir. The family needs her on board, for more reasons than they probably are aware of, and that full-time fisherman commitment clashes hard with her life at school, her social interactions, and her new-found connection to the school choir and its music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos, played with great intent by a somewhat overdone Eugenio Derbez (“Instructions Not Included“).

The Cast of Sian Heder’s CODA (Apple TV+) Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

It’s a standard set-up, especially when Mr. V works his music teacher magic on the shy young singer. He notices her talent and focuses his sharply angled energy on her, pushing her to audition for Boston’s Berklee College of Music. It’s a quick ride to that Billy Elliot moment, but miraculously he finds magnificence in some overly simplified breathing exercises that he inflicts, mostly on Rudy, singling her out for private tutoring and deliciously setting her up with a duet with her cute crush-boy Miles. The game pieces are all set up that quickly, for everything and every interaction that will happen along the way.

Yes. It’s pretty clear what will transpire between her and Miles, almost from the very first moment they try singing their love song duet. The two are set to perform Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s hit, ‘You’re All I Need to Get By‘, and all we need is a slight clash or misunderstanding to make the connection click. And it does, thanks to some mean girl action, naturally, but the great thing about CODA is that even though the energy and focus between the two are well constructed, their attachment never takes center stage or draws our attention away from the more important drama at this story’s core, the emotional conflict between her dreams and her parents’ existence. The balance is solid, delivering well the story’s political and personal agenda alongside its complicated humorous take on her situation. That part sings as strongly as Jones’s Ruby, giving the film just enough authenticity to make us blind to its feel-good ‘coming-of-age’ traditionalism.

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in Sian Heder’s CODA (Apple TV+)

Giving some long-overdue representation of the deaf community on screen, the timeless tale of a teenager finding her wings against all odds to fly courageously outside of her family’s protective embrace sings strong and true, especially since the film has cast deaf actors in all the deaf roles. The French film that this is based upon failed on that count. It does find inventive moments to unearth emotional truths inside and out of Ruby’s complex family dynamics. This is particularly evident during the school choir concert scene, thanks to the fine work of cinematographer Paula Huidobro (“Pam & Tommy“), when we are taken out of Ruby’s vantage point and sat down beside and into her family’s truth and experience. That silence is powerfully loud and ultimately confusing, while systematically shining a complicit light on the film’s wasted opportunity of really digging into her family’s complicated landscape, one that will be forever altered if Ruby goes away to live out her dream.

Luckily for CODA, the film has Jones to fully attach our internal hopes and dreams to. Her performance anchors the piece in the simple honesty of Ruby’s engaging sincerity. She delivers us through the film, but offering up her loneliness and nervous ache for us to connect to, right up to the tender-hearted climax of Ruby singing and signing Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now‘ to her family watching on from upstairs. It’s the ending we need, and the emotional arc that delivers. She is the film’s ultimate weapon, expertly catching us in her meticulously crafted net, and we are gladly pulled on board. Is it the best picture of the year? I doubt it, but it certainly is one crowd-pleasing emotional voyage I’m glad I boarded.

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