CODA, this year’s Sundance crowd-pleaser hit could be destined to being the feel good movie hit of the year. A US remake of the 2014 French comedic-drama La Famille Bellier, which chronicles the life of a daughter who has a deaf family who yearns in becoming a singer. The film was met with instant buzz out of Sundance, which led to a $25 million distribution deal with A24 and Apple TV+ in which it also won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.. With the right amount of word-of-mouth and other types of award buzz, Coda could position itself into an Oscar contender for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress–Emilia Jones. While certainly overly schmaltzy and cliché, the film is rendered with many poignant and warm scenes, and it plays great respect to the deaf community with very sincere representation that will easily draw comparisons to last year’s Sound of Metal, as well as to the 1986 drama Children of a Lesser God, which also starred Marlee Matlin in a leading role that guided her the Oscar for Best Actress at the 1987 Academy Awards.
Written and directed by Sian Heder (Tallulah ) in her film sophomore debut, who also holds a lot of experience in directing some very big hit Television shows such as Glow and Orange is the New Black. Her newest film CODA certainly shows TV sensibilities, aesthetically the film is mostly flat, and it feels like it could easily be a solid made-for- TV movie aswell. Script wise the film is quite well-scripted in terms of dialogue, though very familiar in expectations and structure, and the film is very well-acted–especially by its lead Emila Jones who delivers a very conflicting and sincere performance that carries a lot of emotional weight and vulnerabilities. She plays the Coda of the film named Ruby–she has her hearing in which her parents Frank (Troy Kutsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant ) do not because they are deaf. Ruby serves as the family’s interpreter, translating sign language to the local fishing industry and the overreaching local authorities. It takes up an enormous amount of time for Ruby and even away from her schoolwork, romantic life, and she is even uncertain of her future and has no interest in going to school because she feels obligated in looking out for her family and continuing as being their interpreter for their fishing business in a Massachusetts coastal town.
Upon her love for music and signing, Ruby ends up signing for a choir class in the new semester. The music teacher, Bernardo “Mr. V” Villabos (Eugenio Derbez) acknowledges her singing talent and begins to empower her to push herself and start taking her talents more seriously. With very low confidence due to the mistreatment of her fellow schoolmates who mock her deaf family and claim she “smells like fish ” because she helps Frank and Leo on their fishing boat on the weekends–Bernardo insists she start paving her talents for Boston’s Berklee College. He ends up pairing her with fellow classmate and secret crush, Mile (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from Sing Street). By trying too hard in going for feel good moments, Heder avoids any types of visceral adversities for Ruby’s signing. Ruby doesn’t have to work too hard for her voice, outside of a few shy moments that she easily breaks out of, it’s very trite how Ruby’s voice seems instantly prepared. Heder instead uses a check list of recognizable pastiche of sentimentality and a banal eagerness of Ruby wanting to move on from her family that all feels too commonplace in films about teenage angst.
Despite these quibbles, Heder triumphs the most when she isn’t sticking to formulaic trappings and anchors the material with the realities, inconveniences, and equal elations of being a member of a deaf family, it’s in these moments where the material resonates. The first of two performances where Ruby gets to sing on stage cross-cuts between silence and her singing that immerses the viewer with empathy and perspective. Without an interpreter on stage, Frank, Jackie, and Leo all react differently. Frank feels detached, Jackie is observational, and Leo feels reassured once his new girlfriend Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who can also hear advises Leo that she has a great voice. Upon the high school recital, Frank and Ruby have a tender father-daughter exchange outside their homes where Ruby sings as Frank observes her lips and is deeply moved with the lyrics. It’s there where Frank truly is very proud of the young woman Ruby has become and it actually becomes an earned moment that even the most cynical filmgoer or reviewer couldn’t resist. Each time the film slips into saccharine territory, Heder has a way of luring you back and winning you over in earned ways.
Other delicate and poignant moments involve Ruby and her mother Jackie (Maree Matlin), in her most substantial film role since her Oscar winning role for Children of a Lesser God which was released exactly 35 years ago. At first, Jackie is annoyed with Ruby’s love for passion. She doesn’t allow Ruby to bring headphones or listen to music as they eat. However, Leo is allowed to swipe through Tinder prospects on his phone as she rationalizes it as “something we can all do as a family.” Jackie was once a former pageant queen, and Frank always brags how gorgeous his mom is, and the entire family but Ruby tends to have pleasure in what Heder uses as laughs. While Miles is over practicing choir songs, they both overhear her parents having sex loudly in the bathroom only for Frank and Jackie to sit them both down as they lecture them in embarrassing fashion how to have safe sex. This leads to rumors and mockery breaking out in school which leads to a misunderstanding between Ruby and Miles. Matlin’s performance here is a very succulent performance, and they both also hold some very strong moments together that embellish with poignancy.
The film also benefits from other standout supporting performances. Not only does Kotsur bring a sense of naturalism, rawness, and even humor to the film, Derbez is also quite memorable as the flashy and well-dressed music teacher, it’s a familiar and cliché role that holds hints of caricature that eventually pays off in suitable fashion. The film builds to a heart-warming, usual climax where you know it’s going that borders between familiar, partially eye-rolling, but eventually inspirational.
Audiences familiar with last year’s Sound of Metal, Darius Marder’s film which is a masterpiece certainly draws comparisons as being a mainstream movie that examines deaf culture with an inspirational blueprint. While Marder’s film also held some formulas and a familiar structure of someone suffering from a disability which was about a drummer’s loss of hearing, Sound of Metal felt like a breakthrough with it’s harrowing and visceral details and observational moments. CODA easily surrenders to commercial accessibility and Sound of Metal is certainly the superior film of the two. However, CODA does elevate itself where Heder brings her characters to life with very warm and inviting moments that doesn’t feel like overly manipulative or suffocating with cloying sentimentality. The film’s real triumph, however, is Emilia Jones. Her performance certainly deserves some recognition, it is a performance that brings all the growing pains, internal conflict, and affliction that is savored by sincerity. It’s a reminder just how far great performances with the proper direction can anchor a film.