Using Your Words — CODA
As we get closer to the Oscar Blitz, I’m trying to quickly make up for lost time and go back over the films I either wanted to see earlier in 2021 but missed, or holding my nose and watching the ones that are all but assured to get nominated come Tuesday based on Awards Season patterns to date, even though I think they’ll suck. One such film in the former category is CODA, written and directed by Siân Heder, an Americanized remake of the French film, La Famille Bélier. It premiered back in August after wowing audiences at Sundance, and it felt like that rare small film that could make the leap from festival darling to legitimate hardware contender, so I certainly wanted to see it as soon as it came out. Unfortunately, it got lost in my personal shuffle, and only in the leadup to the Academy announcing their slate have I finally gotten the chance.
Thankfully, the film lived up to its hype, and was immensely enjoyable. It has its flaws, and it falls into a few cliché traps here and there, but on the whole I was delighted with the story, performances, characters, and music. And I have no shame in admitting that on a couple of occasions, I got choked up ever so slightly.
Emilia Jones of Locke & Key stars as Ruby Rossi, which sounds just a bit too much like the name of a character in a bad Broadway musical or episode of Glee, which is sort of ironic, as her eventual music teacher actually has one of the more clever lines of the film by musing about whether his choir students have any real talent or just watched too many episodes of that show and thought joining a show choir might be a fun distraction. Ruby is a CODA, a Child of Deaf Adults, an acronym I admit I’ve never known about (despite it being part of Paul Raci’s identity, which we learned about after his nominated turn in Sound of Metal), but it fits perfectly here for the film’s title, given its double thematic meaning of the literal support role she finds herself in along with its musical definition. She is the only hearing person in her immediate family of Massachusetts fishermen, including father Frank (Troy Kotsur, practically a lock for a Supporting Actor nomination given the trends so far), brother Leo (Daniel Durant), and mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), who handles the accounting. Because she can hear, Ruby is an invaluable sign language interpreter for her family, acting as the communication conduit between them and the rest of their community, even though it requires her to basically work 20 hours a day between the fishing boat and school, and she constantly gets teased by mean girl stereotypes about smelling of fish.
Ruby has an affinity for music, particularly classic rock, if nothing else than because it gives her a creative outlet apart from the rest of her family. That passion, plus a lady boner for the cute Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from Sing Street), leads her to join the school choir for her senior year elective class, under the tutelage of the quirky Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez from How to Be a Latin Lover), who insists on being called “Mr. V” if you can’t dramatically roll the “r’s” in his first name. In the class, Ruby’s talents flourish, and she’s encouraged to apply for the Berklee College of Music, with Mr. V’s help and training. This eventually leads to conflict with her family, Miles, and Mr. V, all of whom pull her in different directions either without asking what she wants or bothering to listen when she explains how stressful her situation is.
A lot of this is pretty basic teen drama, and the moments that feel trite go so far as to be really grating at times. The popular girls teasing her is something we’ve seen for decades. Complaining that your parents don’t understand you is as tired as me after a couple melatonin gummies. Ruby’s best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth from Rise, who ironically does not sing at all), is comically promiscuous and has a crush on Leo, presenting the possibility of friendship discord over Ruby’s desire for her not to date her brother (thankfully that comes to nothing, and Gertie is nothing but supportive even when she does start dating him). Mr. V is insanely over the top at times, and the scene of having all the students audition with the “Happy Birthday” song feels like it was written simply out of the cost-effective joy of that song finally being in the public domain. And again, half the impetus for this film’s entire plot stems entirely from a crush. Even the heartfelt climax set to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” mirrors the “Beautiful Boy” scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus. These are not the strongest elements of the film.
But once you get past the cheesier elements, the movie absolutely shines. Despite the eye-roll nature of their meetup, Jones and Walsh-Peelo have remarkable chemistry and sing beautifully together, particularly when you consider that one is English, the other Irish, and they’re both doing Massachusetts accents. The script is really funny, especially in the moments when the Rossis are a loving family who shit-talks one another through sign language. You’re never going to hear me complain about sticking The Shaggs into the soundtrack, just one of the many inspired catalog choices throughout (the best being a scene where the choir tries to muddle through “Let’s Get it On” with all the cringe that such an idea entails).
However, the real heft of this is in the performances of the main family. Troy Kotsur is an absolute riot as Frank, a combination of a grizzled longshoreman and an aging hippie. In one of the funniest scenes I’ve witnessed in quite some time, Ruby has to translate for both of her parents at a doctor’s appointment, where it’s revealed they both have jock itch due to their highly-active sex lives and the, ahem, moist nature of the family business. His reactions to the idea that he and his wife should abstain for two weeks are not only hilarious, but they speak to the beauty of two people still that passionately in love after so many years together. It’s weird and silly, but heartwarming. We should all be so lucky.
Similarly, Matlin and Durant have amazing moments showing how frustrating life as a deaf person can be in the world of the hearing, even though they all acknowledge that there’s going to come a point where they can’t rely on Ruby anymore to interpret for them. There’s recognizable pathos in Jackie’s initial feelings of offense and betrayal that Ruby wants to study music, something the rest of the family cannot properly experience with her. There’s a brutal yet lovely emotional honesty as she confesses that she once wished that Ruby would be deaf like the rest of them. There’s catharsis in Leo finding ways to join with his fellow fishermen rather than isolating himself with his father. It’s a little rushed given the timeline of the film itself, as these are evolutionary steps that would normally take place over several years, but they put a smile on your face nonetheless.
What really sold me on this being a great movie, however, was the sound design during the crucial moments. A radio call gets on the boat ignored because Frank and Leo can’t hear it, leading an inspector to rat them out to the coast guard and threaten their livelihood, but the movie even shows that while the call is audible, it’s easy to get lost in the din of all the other sounds that would be normal on a commercial fishing vessel. When Ruby is at her limits with frustration, she knows that making noise won’t get anyone’s attention, so she silently makes grandiose gestures to illustrate her point. At the choir performance, part of the scene is taken purely from the family’s perspective, so the sound is completely cut out, making sure that we see and experience it the way they do, which is to understand that while they can’t hear the music, they can see how happy it makes Ruby to do it, and then watching how the rest of the audience reacts, they know that she’s got true talent. I’m very often a stickler for “show, don’t tell,” and this is a textbook example of why.
It’s by no means a perfect movie. There are few too many easy tropes, all of the characters have a moment or two that’s not entirely believable and seems more for show than anything else (Mr. V more than anyone), and things are just a bit too neat at times, especially the ending. But this isn’t just some Hallmark movie meant to make you feel good without thinking. There is surprising depth here, hilarious performances, and a pure joy exuded throughout that makes the few flaws more than forgivable. I can easily see why Kotsur will likely see his name on screen Tuesday morning, and I sincerely hope the film gets more than just that token nod. There’s something to be said for a sweet, simple story, and if nothing else, it’s just nice to hear someone doing justice to Joni Mitchell’s music (take note, Spotify).
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Were you in a school choir? Was your life incomplete before you knew the ASL sign for herpes? Let me know!