Monday, September 6, 2021

CODA: Breaking into Something Real

Emilia Jones in CODA.

The last half hour of CODA (playing in theatres and on Apple TV+), about the hearing daughter of a deaf family of Gloucester fishermen who discovers a talent for singing, is sweet and affecting. The heroine, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who has been interpreting for her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) all of her life, struggles with her sense of obligation to them and her need to assert her independence and live the life she wants. (CODA is an acronym for “children of deaf adults.”) When the sympathetic choir director (Eugenio Derbez) encourages Ruby to apply to Berklee School of Music and she invites her family to watch her perform in the school concert, for the first time they begin to understand what singing means to her, and in a knockout climax they sneak into the balcony of the Berklee auditorium during her audition. With her beloved teacher at the piano, she sings Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and signs the lyrics for the benefit of her family. The scene sounds sentimental and obvious when you describe it, and it’s both of those things, but nothing in it seems pushed or tricked up.

I have to say, however, that only the realist feel of the Gloucester setting and the likable presence of Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Miles, who is paired with her on a duet in choir and becomes her first boyfriend, kept me in my seat through the first hour and a half of the movie. (Walsh-Peelo played the young protagonist of Jim Carney’s irresistible 2016 musical Sing Street, set in 1980s Dublin.) Most of CODA is insufferably cutesy, with broad, tiresome comic sequences that have the uncomfortable effect of turning most of the other characters into caricatures. I’m sure that this is the last effect the writer-director, Sian Heder – adapting a 2014 French film called La Famille Belier – intended, but when you impose a lot of dumb sitcom ideas onto deaf characters, instead of normalizing them, you wind up making them look like adorable Disney animals. We’re supposed to find it hilarious that Ruby and her brother sign extravagantly obscene insults for each other, that her father describes jock itch to a doctor in excruciating detail, and especially that he and her mother engage in loud bouts of sex during the daytime. Heder gives free rein to Matlin (who has always been a scenery chewer) and Kotsur (who gives her a run for her money in that department) – as well as to Derbez as the choir director. As Ruby’s brother Durant is considerably more toned down, but he only has two colors – pissed-off and horny. (He sleeps with Ruby’s hearing best friend, played by Amy Forsyth, who can’t keep her pants on – another sitcom cliché.)

You only get a break from this stuff when Jones and Walsh-Peelo are alone on screen, or when we get a glimpse of the everyday struggles of the hard-working, perennially behind-the-eight-ball Gloucester fishermen. (John Fiore from Law and Order – always a welcome presence – plays the head of their organization.) That is, until the end, when Heder stops playing cute. Even Matlin and Kotsur come across in the last half-hour: each has a straight scene with Jones that focuses on complex emotions and you wonder why it took the movie an hour and a half to allow these characters to register as human beings rather than cartoons. It’s worth the wait.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.



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