Get ready for ‘CODA,’ the feel-good movie that will emotionally destroy you
My first review of “CODA,” Siân Heder’s sublime coming-of-age story of a child of Deaf adults (the film’s title is that very acronym), came right after watching it on the opening night of this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival and consisted of a message sent to a colleague containing the sobbing emoji repeated three times.
Having had the chance to revisit the movie several months later, that review seems insufficient. “CODA” warrants at least half a dozen sobbing emojis, followed by a dozen hearts and a couple of bouquets of flowers and, I don’t know, maybe a peach and an eggplant (or whatever the kids use these days) for the number of times the movie emphasizes the parents’ spectacularly healthy sex life.
But as you’re reading this, you might be interested in ... I don’t know ... words. So let me say that “CODA” contains a great many elements familiar to this kind of movie. It’s about a restless teenager trying to break free from her parents’ expectations, helped along by an inspirational teacher, putting her on the path to a tense, make-or-break musical audition that’s followed by an emotional catharsis that will wound even the most hardened soul.
But because Heder — whose previous work includes the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” and “Glow” and feature “Tallulah” — is so adept at establishing the emotional bonds between the film’s close-knit family, the presence of all these conventions doesn’t matter. Much. You might find yourself in the film’s final 20 minutes begging for mercy as the story careens from a heart-to-heart talk between mother and daughter to a beautiful moment between father and daughter to the use of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in a way that literally embodies the lyrics “tears and fears and feeling proud / To say, ‘I love you’ right out loud.” But you will not mind because Heder has earned the right to destroy you emotionally.
“CODA” focuses on Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high school senior in Gloucester, Mass., who wakes up before the sun rises so she can help her father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on the family fishing boat before heading to school to fall asleep at her desk and endure taunts that she smells like haddock. Ruby is the only hearing person in her family, which puts the weight of responsibility on her shoulders, whether negotiating the price for the fish they catch or translating to her parents the doctor’s diagnosis as to why their private parts feel like they’re on fire. (Marlee Matlin plays the mom, and she and Kotsur possess the kind of harmony that deserves its own movie.)
Ruby loves singing and she’s good enough that her choir teacher, Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), offers to train her so she can audition for the for the prestigious Berklee College of Music. Bernardo, or, should I say — as he does — Ber-narrrrrdo (if you can’t roll your Rs, just call him Mr. V) also pairs Ruby with the cute boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) she’s been crushing on for a duet of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.” It pretty much guarantees that they’ll fall in love because, singing that song, how could they not?
The other certainty is that Ruby’s desire to leave home and pursue her dreams will conflict with her family’s need for her to stick around and help. One thing that separates “CODA” from every other coming-of-age movie is the way that Heder seamlessly moves between speaking and American Sign Language in the family scenes. The signing is subtitled, rather than translated, highlighting its vibrancy as a form of communication. And because we see mother, father, sister and brother communicating with this energy and intimacy, our understanding of the family — its dynamics, the love they share and what’s at stake if Ruby leaves — is heightened.
That means you care about these people — a lot. Which leads to the aforementioned waterworks when Ruby, played by British actress Jones with an authenticity that captures the character’s sensitivity and youthful impulsiveness, sets out on the final part of one journey so that she can begin another.
As Joni’s song puts it: Something’s lost, but something’s gained. Have some tissue handy.
Groundbreaking Sundance hit “CODA” created a space for Deaf actors on-set and made the environment accessible for all.
Rating: PG-13, for strong sexual content and language, drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 13 in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+
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