Film reviews and more since 2009

CODA (2021) review

Dir. Sian Heder

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Playing catch-up with the Best Picture nominees for the 94th Academy Awards.

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) has had to grow up fast. She’s the only hearing person in her entire family. Anyone who takes even a minute to learn the weight that’s been place on her since childhood will understand her simultaneously angsty yet self-assured mindset. She’s served as the unpaid interpreter for her mother, Jackie (the legendary Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) since she was a toddler. Furthermore, she’s long shrugged off the frustrating yet necessary responsibility of aiding them on their fishing boat — the family’s sole source of income in Massachusetts.

Ruby finds herself in a position most unfair; she’s a pariah to her family because she can hear and she’s an outcast at school because of her family (along with the fact that ASL was her first language, leading to initial difficulties with speech).

On a whim, Ruby joins her school’s choir, mainly because her crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is doing the same. As fate would have it, she has a remarkable singing voice, although it takes several metaphorical lashings from her eccentric teacher (Eugenio Derbez) to bring it out. When Ruby’s pipes prove they have the potential to go beyond a high school elective — maybe even to college on scholarship — it puts the family business in a pickle, especially with the payouts for today’s catch becoming increasingly sparse.

Ruby’s desire to leave home wouldn’t be as lofty of a conflict if she wasn’t so integral to her family. It doesn’t help that she is often the most measured and mature of them all. “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” is her mother’s response to her daughter proclaiming her newfound passion for singing. Her desire prompts a seismic shift in the family’s dynamic as well as a feeling of guilt that her big break could render her alienated; worse, it could severely limit her own necessary growth as an individual should she stay put.

Based on the 2014 French film La Famille Belier, CODA — which gets its title from the acronym “children of deaf adults” — examines a coming of age story that remains surprisingly untapped in the present despite the genre’s ubiquity. The tropes and narrative conveniences it employs would make it an easy target for criticism if the entire package wasn’t made so earnest thanks to a litany of genuine performances.

Sian Heder’s remake is given added life from its actors, who elevate material that occasionally feels too sanitized for easy consumption. At its core is a radiant Emilia Jones, whose singing voice is pitch perfect, particularly when it’s granted runway in the final minutes when her song “Both Sides Now” plays over an earned montage. That wasn’t me tearing up, it must’ve been you.

Moreover, a wholly natural Troy Kotsur is one of those actors who can say a lot without saying or doing much at all. He has that gruff exterior that suggests life experience; that weather-worn brow and haggard beard that tell even the blind that he’s lived quite a colorful life. He looks like a regular at a salty seaport bar, meaning he fits the casting bill effortlessly. Kotsur is afforded many moments of profane comedy and tender introspection; one in particular is after his daughter’s concert, when he invites her on the bed of the family truck and requests her to sing the song again — this time with his palms on her vocal chords. Although by default supporting performers in a story about Ruby, Matlin and Durant each have one significant scene that allows their characters to transcend.

The only character who feels out of place is Derbez, who is drawn like a cartoon in a situational comedy as opposed to a mentor in a thoughtful drama. He’s significant to the story, but either writer/director Sian Heder afforded him too much creative interpretation or filming commenced with one role needing a rewriter.

CODA also boasts a lovely arrangement of songs, both performed and non-diegetic. The Clash’s “I Fought the Law” is a grade-A choice for a montage of Ruby’s average weekday, which begins at 3 a.m. and ends whenever she’s lucky enough to get to bed. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is the song of choice when Ruby shows her peers, and herself, that she does have what it takes to make a career out of this, and “You’re All I Need to Get By” is the duet with Miles.

CODA works well because it makes a believable family out of its core actors. Emilia Jones is a rising star; Marlee Matlin is probably the most famous deaf actress thanks to her many accolades. It’s a shame that Kotsur and Durant haven’t been afforded more mainstream roles, although Kotsur, we can hope, might see some doors open with his supporting actor nomination at the Oscars. With inclusivity becoming more of a focal point for a Hollywood that’s long been too rigid and selective for its own good, CODA does many things well — perhaps the most significant is helping Americans warm to the idea of subtitles.

NOTE: CODA is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Starring: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. Directed by: Sian Heder.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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