(2021) Drama (Apple) Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth, Courland Jones, Molly Beth Thomas, John Fiore, Jose Gonsalves, Armen Garo, Garrett McKechnie, Rebecca Gibel, Lonnie Farmer, Kevin Chapman, Owen Burke, Lance Norris, Jared Voss, Emilia Faucher, Marilyn Busch. Directed by Sian Heder
CODA stands for “child of deaf adults.” It also is a musical term which signals the cessation of a piece of music. Both terms are apt for this new movie, which is playing currently at the Enzian but also concurrently on the Apple Plus streaming service (see below for link).
The titular child is Ruby Rossi (Jones), a high school senior in Gloucester, Massachusetts (and who will ever hear the name of that fine town without thinking of the Coast Guard rescue swimmer in The Perfect Storm grumping “Gloucester! It’s always some guy from Gloucester!”) whose father Frank (Kotsur) is deaf, as is her older brother Leo (Durant). Every morning she goes out on their fishing boat and helps sell their catch to the local broker before heading off to school. Her mother Jackie (Matlin) is also deaf. In fact, Ruby is the only one in the family who hears and acts as the official family interpreter, signing what others are saying so that her parents can understand what’s going on.
Times are hard and new government regulations is cutting down the profit margin to the breaking point. Ruby is hoping that the family business will sustain them as she expects to be part of it after she graduates high school. However, on a lark, she decides to join the school choir.
It’s not as outrageous a thought as you might think. With her brother and father silent on the boat, she often sings along to the radio or by herself just to hear something, but she is naturally shy and was bullied as a child for smelling like fish when she got to school (which shouldn’t seem to be a big deal in a town like Gloucester whose economy is so wrapped up in fishing) but also because as a child she didn’t have someone to help her learn to talk other than her parents, who speak in the flat tones that deaf people take. She panics at the audition and flees, much to the bemusement of Mr. Villalobos (Mexican comedy star Derbez), the grouch of a choir director – but with the requisite soft heart.
But when she auditions for him privately, he begins to realize that she has a true gift and urges her to apply to the prestigious Berklee School of Music, which he himself is an alum of – but only if she’s willing to take singing lessons from him. This adds a burden onto her already full schedule of working and school, and it seems, something has to break.
She’s also been paired up with comely senior Miles (Walsh-Peelo) to do a duet of the Marvin Gaye-Tammy Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By.” Sparks fly, and as time wears down and they come closer to the big recital (and Ruby’s big audition at Berklee), things begin to get more desperate for the family fishing business, and Ruby is needed more than ever, but will she – can she – give up on her dream in order to help her family?
Now, I’m going to say a few things about the movie and it’s going to sound like this is going to be a real negative review. The plot has been done many times before and there aren’t a lot of chances taken with the narrative or the character development. Particularly in the third act of the movie, there are a whole raft of different emotional peaks that are blindingly, unapologetically manipulative – but fuck if it doesn’t work.
The family dynamic between Jones, Matlin, Kotsur and Durant feels genuine and warm. Yes, there is much bickering but that only serves to make that dynamic feel more realistic. There is an ongoing joke about the parents having loud sex at inappropriate moments which is a nightmare every kid dreads, but even that feels less raunchy than it does affectionate.
Part of the charm are the performances by the principles; Matlin has already won an Oscar for her performance in Children of a Lesser God (a movie that should be considered a classic but for some bizarre reason isn’t) and yes, Jackie is having a very hard time with the notion that her baby girl is ready to leave the nest. Rather than playing it shrilly for laughs, Matlin gives it a gentle, wistful clinginess that she eventually realizes she must put aside; it’s a fine moment in the film (one of many) when she realizes that she must. Kotsur is a bit gruff as Frank, but Frank is a fiercely devoted father and that shines through in Kotsur’s performance.
Jones, an English actress, had to learn American sign language for the part as well as the mechanics of working on a fishing boat; in fact, Kotsur, Durant and her are actually fishing (and in a somewhat surreal trivia fact, on one of the shooting trips they had to take a Fish & Game observer with them, similar to what occurs in the movie). The final scenes – particularly her audition at Berklee – is so magically handled that you don’t mind that you’ve been toyed with, so full of the warm fuzzies you’ll be.
The movie played Sundance earlier this year and was subject of a fierce bidding war. Apple won that, paying out $25 million for the rights to the movie and they should be more than happy with their purchase; this is by far the best movie playing on Apple Plus from an original standpoint. And for those Apple Plus subscribers wondering if they should go out and see it in the theater, by all means do; films like this should be supported as much as possible.
As surrounded by uncertainty as we all are in these times, there’s something comforting in the familiar. You know exactly where this film is headed and pretty much how it’s going to get there, but that’s not the point; like a visit to an oft-visited beloved grandparent’s house, the way there may be familiar but the arrival at the destination is guaranteed to make you feel warm and happy inside.
REASONS TO SEE: The final act is mesmerizing. Matlin and Kotsur deliver terrific performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unapologetically, outrageously manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlike the French film this is based on, all of the deaf characters in the film were played by deaf actors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 75/100.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pitch Perfect
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Outsider