Movie Review: ‘CODA’

Plot: As the only hearing member of her family, high school student Rubi Rossi (Emilia Jones) has long since resigned herself to a future focused solely on her family’s fishing business. Already assisting her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) daily, Rubi is just biding her time until high school ends and she can participate full-time. Her only outlet is a pastime her father, brother, and mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) can’t fully appreciate – singing. When Rubi is forced to take an elective class she chooses choir on a whim, where her abrasive but passionately enthusiastic teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) recognizes and nurtures her burgeoning talent. With dedication and hard work, an opportunity soon presents itself that could alter the course of Rubi’s future forever. Yet Rubi’s singing endeavors conflict with her home life, leaving Rubi wondering whether she’ll have to choose between her passion and her family.

Review: Saying the last two years have been rough for a majority of the world falls in line with such grand sentiments as “water is wet,” “The Last Jedi has inspired passionate online debate,” and “NFTs are a scam.” It’s an understatement the size Galactus. People are consuming content as never before and we are all in need (myself included) of some feel good escapism that distracts from brutal reality and inspires positivity. Enter in writer/director Sian Heder’s marvelous sophomore film effort CODA (short for Children Of Deaf Adults). Although technically a remake of the 2014 film La Famille Belier, CODA nevertheless tugs at the heartstrings in all the best possible ways.

While CODA visually could have been a straightforward story, Heder and company do a fantastic job of not letting this slide into After School Special territory. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro brings a deft touch behind the camera with shots that linger on Rubi’s face just the right amount at particularly intense moments. The scene where a Coast Guard ship comes up alongside the Rossi’s fishing vessel was particularly harrowing. Additionally, I loved how she was able to frame shots from a deaf perspective, especially one where Frank looks around at the auditorium during one of Rubi’s recitals. The scene is completely quiet and all you can take in visually is Frank’s reaction to the audience reacting to Rubi’s voice. It’s brilliant. The cinematography also dovetails nicely with an impressive soundtrack consisting of everything from Etta James, to Marvin Gaye, to David Bowie.

While the story is somewhat familiar, CODA manages to rise above standard tropes due mostly to its ensemble cast. Troy Kotsur shines as Emilia’s Dad, a struggling fisherman who decides to branch off on his own after getting nickel and dimed to death by gross overregulation. He’s passionate about his work and frankly hysterical in the way he goes out of his way to embarrass Rubi, as only Dads can. A scene where he’s signing to Rubi’s love interest Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) about safe sex had me in stitches. But Kotsur tackles the quieter, more dramatic portions with equal aplomb. A moment towards the end of the film where he has Rubi sing to him while he feels the vibrations in her throat was particularly moving and leads to a shift in his character arc that was delightful to see. Kotsur definitely deserved the Oscar nomination he just received and I’m personally rooting for him to win.

In a similar fashion, Daniel Durant exceeds as Rubi’s brother Leo. While they have a contentious but heartfelt relationship, Leo initially seems to be the only one who can see that Rubi can’t be the family’s crutch her whole life. Just because Rubi is the only one who can hear doesn’t mean she’s obligated to be a part of the family fishing business forever, even if it is unconsciously implied by her mother and father. Leo is a man looking to expand the family fishing business himself and isn’t as overly concerned with how his deafness might impede his progress. This is completely contrary to Jackie’s perspective who is reluctant to interact with the hearing wives when the Rossis’ new fishing endeavor takes off. Matlin brings a light, deft, and motherly wholesomeness to the character that just reiterates what a true talent she remains.

The absolute pillar and the crux upon which CODA rests though is in Emilia Jones’ phenomenal performance as Rubi. She completely carries the film from start to finish. Rubi’s personal arc from taciturn to outspoken in her desire for a different life was a pleasure to watch unfold. I particularly loved Jones’ chemistry with Eugene Derbez’s Mr. V, Rubi’s music teacher. Equal parts passionate and sarcastic, he recognizes Rubi’s talent early and is able to push her in the right ways. Jones elegantly conveys that deep longing for something more and questioning one’s place in the world that so many people feel at seventeen. It also doesn’t hurt that Jones possesses a voice like an angel. She strikes a delicate balance between pursuing her dreams and her obligations to her family. You can’t help but root for Rubi and when she finally gets an audition at the Berklee School of Music it is so satisfying and heartfelt. Her rendition of “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell is simply sublime.

In a year that carried with it a distinct amount of bleak news, I can’t overemphasize how good CODA made me feel. You’ll finish the film with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

CODA: 9/10