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CODA ★★★

Availability: Streaming only on AppleTV+ (look for 7- to 30-day free trials, or a monthly cost of less than $5 [and you can use it to watch “Ted Lasso”]); see JustWatch here for future availability.


Singing in the Rain


We hate to rain on “CODA’s” parade; after all the film won the 2022 Oscar for Best Picture. So we’ll try to keep it to a sprinkle, or maybe a shower.

 

If you’re not bawling as the credits begin to roll, you might think about a few sessions with a therapist.

 

By any measure, “CODA” is an emotional experience, the consummate tear-jerker. If you’re not bawling as the credits begin to roll, you might think about a few sessions with a therapist. Forget “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Groundhog Day”; get the family together over the holidays for the annual showing of “CODA.”


And that’s the problem. Tears of joy are a Hollywood specialty, and “CODA” (an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults”), although a product of the Apple conglomerate, is pure Hollywood—OK, Hollywood with a twist.


Much of the family "discussion" takes place at the dinner table, above, where parents

Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) Rossi, sign with their daughter

Ruby (back to camera, left) (Emilia Jones) and son Leo, right (Daniel Durant).

 

The outpouring of emotion that this feel-good film induces comes at a cost: a script that is manipulative and predictable, following the standard formula to a fault.

 

The outpouring of emotion that this feel-good film induces comes at a cost: a script that is manipulative and predictable, following the standard formula to a fault. It offers a series of questions or problems, to which we know the answers: Will Ruby and Miles, despite their troubles, make a couple? Will Miles pass the quarry test (shades of TV’s “The Bachelorette”)? Can the family—all of them deaf except Ruby—be able to get along without her? Will the family, if left on its own, be accepted by the larger community? Will Ruby find success and satisfaction in singing? Will the controlling mother understand that she needs to let go? Can Ruby’s deaf parents ever appreciate her singing? Can the Ruby-less family make a go of the fishing business? Spoiler alert (sort of): yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Although there will be the requisite moments of stress and tension and doubt, the answer is always yes. George Bailey will learn how much his life has meant to Bedford Falls; Phil and Rita will find each other in Punxsutawney; and Ruby will say a heartfelt farewell or two and head off to her future. That’s the way it is—in Hollywood.


Right, Ruby with her Dad (Tony Kotsur

who won a Best Supporting Actor

Oscar for this role).



That said, the “twist”—the role of deafness in an otherwise overly familiar story—adds an innovative layer of seriousness and complexity to the production. A number of scenes rise above the script’s predictability: the siblings exchanging crude insults in sign language, aware that the hearing world will fail to understand; Ruby’s mother, responding to her daughter’s query, “did you wish I were deaf?”, their poignant interaction bringing to mind Andrew Solomon’s treatise, “Far from the Tree”; Ruby expressing her frustration—and exhaustion—at having expended so much of her energy as an interpreter, living not her own life but the lives of others; Frank, the crusty and horny patriarch, explaining in signs how to use a condom; Ruby and her father, seated on the tailgate of a flat-bed truck, as she sings and he puts his hand on her throat, feeling the vibrations, understanding perhaps for the first time that his daughter can SING! (Some members of the deaf and CODA communities have expressed concerns about how deaf people are portrayed in the film, giving this scene as an example of one they say is unrealistic.) The film also effectively explores the experience of deafness through the absence of sound when it would normally be heard.


Left, Ruby at her Berklee College of Music audition, with, in the background, her high school music teacher Bernardo Villalobos ("if you can't trill your Rs, call me 'Mr. V.'" [Eugenio Derbez])







 

Emilia Jones’s Ruby Rossi is a perfectly modulated low-affect introvert, appropriately guarded about acknowledging the aspirations that have begun to flood her consciousness.

 

Troy Kotsur received a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar (the first deaf actor to win this award) for his portrayal of Frank Rossi, Ruby’s hard-working, cantankerous, protective, fisherman father. But others in the ensemble are no less effective. As wife and mother Jackie Rossi, Marlee Matlin (who broke her own barriers as a deaf person, winning a Best Actress Oscar in 1987) may have the most complex role, straddling the line between pragmatism and selfishness, on the one hand, and struggling to understand and appreciate her daughter’s emerging needs, on the other. Emilia Jones’s Ruby Rossi is a perfectly modulated low-affect introvert, appropriately guarded about acknowledging the aspirations that have begun to flood her consciousness. Leo Rossi (Daniel Durant, the third deaf actor in the film) has two chips on his shoulder; he wants to share in the respect and attention that Ruby garners from her function as the voice of the fishing business, and he’s something of an “On the Waterfront” radical and labor organizer, convinced that the Rossi clan is being fleeced by unscrupulous middlemen and buyers of the daily catch.


Director and writer Siân Heder won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for her script based on the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier,” enormously popular in France yet little-seen outside its home country. Heder’s adaptations included changing the setting from a dairy farm in France to a fishing family in Massachusetts, and most importantly, using deaf actors to portray the deaf characters. “CODA” won all three Oscars for which it was nominated and became the first purely streaming film to win Best Picture, putting to rest the once-hot debate about whether streaming films should be eligible for Oscars. It also won the most awards any film has ever garnered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was snapped up by Apple, on its way to becoming the first movie screened at Sundance to win the Academy’s award for Best Picture.


Mom, Dad and Brother Leo watch Ruby's audition from their balcony seats.

Let's just say the tears will come when you watch too.


Ironically, a scene in which the script doesn’t follow the formula—Ruby’s recital for admission to Berklee College of Music—in one respect violates our expectations. We expect Ruby to shed her shyness and sing forcefully (to sing “loud” or “ugly,” as her energetic high school music teacher “Mr. V” [Eugenio Derbez] has taught her). Instead, she sings “pretty,” to use Mr. V’s pejorative. Even that departure has a purpose. Let’s just say the tears will come, and not for the first time. Welcome to Hollywood.


 

Date: 2021

Director: Siân Heder

Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez

Runtime: 111 minutes

Countries: United States, France, Canada

Languages: English and American Sign Language, subtitled in English; there are also dubbed versions available in many languages

Oscar Nominations (won all): 2022 Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur), Best Adapted Screenplay (Siân Heder)

Other Awards: 59 wins and 133 nominations

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