Sundance Hit is a Feel-Good Oscar Contender
DIRECTOR: SIÂN HEDER
CODA may be an unlikely Oscar contender, but it’s no surprise it’s a fan favorite.
CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, and Ruby (Emilia Jones) is one of them. Her parents (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are deaf (as are the actors playing them), and Ruby is the family’s primary translator. When she’s not at school, she’s handling communication between her family and the rest of the world, including the Massachusetts fishing community their family works with. But when she’s at school, Ruby dreams of joining the choir and becoming a singer with the help of her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez)—how can she pursue her dream and support her family?
Like last year’s Sound of Metal, CODA invites its viewers into a differently abled community than we usually see (or hear) on screen. But while Sound of Metal focused on its main character’s angst about being different, losing his career, and coping without drugs, the Rossi family knows who they are. Well, most of them—the deaf members face practical challenges with a world not considerate of their differences, but they’re comfortable with their identities and relationships. Only Ruby suffers from angst about her place in this world, and it stems from the greatest joys in her life: her family and her talent.
Those are the movie’s greatest joys for us as well. CODA is both a celebration of deafness and of music, of tight-knit families and of finding your individual voice. Most of us who watch this movie will not be deaf (much less CODAs), but we’ve struggled to find identities apart from our families. If not that, then we’ve been embarrassed by our parents in front of a high school crush (in this film, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) or felt burdened by their expectations. We’ve had teachers challenge us beyond our comfort zones, and we’ve made hard choices about our futures. CODA may have a different premise than most of the Best Picture nominees before it, but at its heart, it’s a standard coming-of-age story.
And that is the film’s biggest weakness. “Sentimental” and “feel-good” are not pejorative descriptors for me—in fact, I think those qualities are part of why CODA is easy to recommend. It will move you to tears and still send you off with hope, and goodness knows most of us could use that these days. But after establishing its world and characters, which feel both distinct and lived-in, the script falls into the familiar story beats of teen and family dramas you’ve seen before. (Mild spoilers!) First kiss? Check. The prickly teacher who transforms into an encouraging mentor? Check. Unlikely situations in which our lead is forced to choose between the two most important things in her life? Check, check, check, check, and check again. (End of spoilers.) While all of those moments are competent, they’re also predictable to the point of comparison with movies that pulled them off with more finesse, like Lady Bird choosing a college, Walsh-Peelo finding his sound in Sing Street, or insert-a-moment-from-your-favorite-‘80s-teen-movie here.
CODA is best when it leans into its performers, who make the most of little moments you haven’t seen before: Ruby awkwardly translating for her parents at the doctor’s office, her inability to express her feelings in spoken words, the honest conversation she finally has with her brother, her father experiencing her singing for the first time. This cast is an embarrassment of riches, elevating what could have been cliché into something real. And even if you’ve seen stories like Ruby’s before, that authenticity is what makes the Rossi family worth spending time with.