CODA lives on the very thin and dangerous line between transcendent crowd-pleaser and overwhelming manipulation. In fact, its screenplay functions like a constant one-two punch, disarming the audience with a heavy dose of conventional schmaltz before delivering a blow of deeply resonant emotion. Its rapturous response at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – where it won not only the Audience Award but also the Grand Jury Prize – is understandable given that successful emotional rope-a-dope. Such a description probably makes the film sound manipulative, and it is, though somehow it never feels insincere, and in its most authentic emotional beats, that Sundance standing ovation seems not only inevitable, but earned.
The film’s title references the acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. That’s Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in a deaf family. In a coastal fishing community in Massachusetts, where her family earns its modest living, Ruby fills in all the gaps that might otherwise hinder the family business – she helps out on the boat and acts as a go-between with buyers to negotiate selling prices. The situation is ideal for Ruby’s father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant), who can focus on fishing without having to navigate the inherent impediments of being deaf in a field where hearing is essential. But as Ruby approaches high school graduation, she’s faced with choosing between continuing her familial obligations in perpetuity or following her dream.
Don’t cringe at my choice of phrasing – that’s literally the plot of the movie. It’s about as conventional a dramatic framework as one could imagine, though a wrinkle here is that Ruby doesn’t realize she even has a dream. She just likes to sing, an ironic talent in a family where no one can fully appreciate it. Not until she follows a cute boy into signing up for the school choir does she realize her talent could open a promising new life path. Eugenio Derbez plays the quirky but hilarious choir teacher, who also happens to be a sage. Under his tutelage, Ruby harnesses her gift and ponders auditioning for the auspicious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Of course, such a decision would leave her family in the lurch, particularly as their small town intends to impose costly new regulations on the fishing industry. Ruby’s mother (Marlee Matlin, always a wonderful screen presence) particularly chafes at the idea, revealing some ingrained biases against such hearing-centered enterprises as music and singing.
In those brief moments that hint at a more complicated psychological conflict between the deaf and the hearing, CODA flirts with a rougher but more rewarding thematic exploration. But Sian Heder’s screenplay consistently stops at the implication level, each scene walking up to the edge of true complexity and then cutting to the next. There’s a version of this story that could be revelatory in its mining of the deaf and hearing dynamic, but Heder – who also directs – largely stays on lighter terrain.
What CODA lacks in thematic depth it makes up for in good humor and witty spirit. This is a consistently funny film, buoyed by a cast that is uniformly excellent (no surprise that the film also won the Ensemble prize at Sundance). Jones is, naturally, the standout, her clear-eyed believability made even more impressive when you discover she’s an English actress who spent months mastering American Sign Language. She’s the film’s anchor, navigating Ruby’s journey from shy and unassuming to defiant and passionate while maintaining individual authenticity. The family dynamic surrounding her is effortlessly natural, a credit to Heder and these wonderful actors, who manage to craft a unique familial vibe even as the movie surrounding them feels very conventional.
Of course, conventions can only become conventions when they work so well for so long, and CODA employs them to full crowd-pleasing effect. This is a film that prominently features grandstanding confrontations, inconvenient coincidences, and last-minute saviors. It’s all transparent…but it also just works, especially when delivered from such great performers with earnest emotion and casual wit. And every time the sentimentality starts to verge on cynical, Heder finds individual moments of galvanizing emotion that make it…sing.
Oh god, now the movie’s rubbing off on me.