A teenager girl struggles to balance her own aspirations with the needs of her deaf family.
Directed by Sian Heder
Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur
Review by Jon Kissel
The deaf family angle is CODA’s primary draw, and it comes at a moment of increasing deaf visibility in movies large and small. Creed features deaf and hearing-disabled characters, and Millicent Simmonds of A Quiet Place and Wonderstruck is a deaf young actor destined for great things. Sound of Metal was one of 2020’s best films, and films like Hush and The Tribe place deaf characters within recognizable genres in formally daring ways. CODA twists the primary sympathy away from deaf characters and towards a hearing character, but in a way that humanizes her family in a grounded, non-saintly fashion. A knock on films where the able-bodied or, often, white characters interact with disabled or non-white communities is that the film should just focus on the disabled/non-white characters. CODA skirts this by sculpting a central family that has the same amount of blinkered selfishness and eccentricity that any family would. They have a pride that keeps them from asking for help, and a comfortable dynamic that meshes with their resistance to change. CODA normalizes them and gets to a point where they can exist in the world without automatically being the most interesting thing about it.
That said, there is a sameness to nearly every other facet of the film. Ruby’s college pursuits and Mr. Villalobos’ pushing of her are both ancient storylines, and both develop not because he’s such a great teacher, but because montages insist that they do. Jones and Walsh-Peelo share an acceptable amount of chemistry, but nothing more than one might expect from a Netflix teen romance. The family’s breaking away from the seafood middle-men is teased as difficult and with a narrow chance of success, and then proceeds easily despite entrenched interests and the family’s negligible amount of startup funds. Heder, who adapted the film from an earlier French movie, doesn’t seem to have enough faith in the strength of her A plot, wherein Ruby has to grapple with the restricting pressure of being the mediator between her deaf family and the hearing world. Instead, the deaf aspect could be stripped out and CODA could be about any working-class high school senior attempting to reach a new economic level over her family’s objections. It would need a new title, but not much else.
Heder does manage to tie most of her threads together as the film reaches its emotional climax. Though it perhaps overdoes it on Frank and Jackie’s complete inability to stay engaged during Ruby’s concert, seeing them break through into an appreciation of her skills does work exactly how it’s supposed to. Simmering tensions between Ruby and Leo and Ruby and Jackie boil over to show Ruby’s being the odd one out both alienates and endears her to her family. In Treatment did a segment about the stresses of being a sibling to a brother with autism, and I find the voicing of taboo frustrations fascinating in that TV show and in this film. The film’s tearjerking centerpiece, an affectionate sitdown between Ruby and Frank, works in the exact same way much of the aforementioned Billy Elliot works on me. To again refer to it, the family in Billy Elliot has to sacrifice, financially and morally, to help the titular character, where CODA ends with an everything’s-fine montage. That hand-waving keeps CODA’s emotional oomph from bludgeoning its way to the highest levels, but it can’t be said that the film misses its punches. B