CODA
First screened in August 2021
Director: Siân Heder. Cast: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, . Screenplay: Siân Heder (based on the 2014 film La Famille Bélier, written by Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Éric Lartigau, and Thomas Bidegain).

Photo © 2021 Apple+/Vendôme Pictures/Pathé Pictures
It's incredible how little we are starting to expect from our movies as movies. Beyond lacking for almost any visual eloquence or aesthetic finesse, CODA barely acts as if these are goals to which a film might aspire. There's exactly one scene where you might detect some audiovisual shaping: a key concert where a sudden rack focus, in cahoots with a drastic change in the soundtrack, communicates something essential about the story and its characters' experience of the world. Even so, it's a point that has already been made in more typically pedestrian ways earlier in the same sequence. Soon afterward, a nighttime exchange between Ruby (Emilia Jones) and her dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) offers a similarly qualified "peak" in the film. It's a moving moment of earnest vulnerability and disclosure between these characters, but it's a mystery why nothing like it has transpired any earlier in CODA's plot. Plus, having wrung some honest feeling from its audience via this delicate moment, CODA immediately proceeds toward a more elaborate, clunky, and dishonest riff on what's fundamentally the same scene. This reprise, styled as a big, tearjerking climax, no longer conveys a unique, private bond between two characters in the central family but instead sells the audience hard on a bedrock of warmth, intimacy, and mutual recognition that allegedly unites the whole foursome—a sweet idea that CODA has spent almost two hours demonstrating as untrue.

Despite its inexplicable bounty of awards from Sundance (not a festival from which I necessarily expect more discernment), CODA cannot be chalked up as one of those occasions where a sturdy script receives disappointingly flat treatment at the level of image and style. CODA's screenplay is itself a mess, as beholden to Hallmark Channel templates as are its bland, overbright, indifferently framed shots. (Regarding the Hallmark Channel, I know wherefrom I speak; just trust me on this.) Behavior within the family is an incoherent mishmash of fondness and alienation, just as their public-facing life combines reckless outspokenness with timid insecurity in bewildering ways. Of course I understand that people are complicated (!), and I know well that inhabiting a minoritized identity can easily lead to all kinds of behavioral and temperamental inconsistencies in public and even in private life, varying by the circumstance and the moment. What CODA offers, though, is not a dispatch on human complexity. It just feels like a piece of simple-enough pegboard furniture in which someone has nonetheless managed to misassemble the crude, unambiguously labeled parts.

For an inordinately long time, Ruby conceals from her family a passion for singing (even though it's literally the first thing we see and hear her do, in their company!) and then is shocked, shocked when they don't understand that her nascent musicianship is the single thing around which they must reorganize their own shifting priorities, or else emerge as The Bad People in a borderline-bratty coming-of-age flick. Ruby's connections to a music teacher, overplayed by Eugenio Derbez, and an I-guess-boyfriend, underplayed by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, never resolve or convince in relation to the generous amounts of screen time they receive from writer-director Siân Heder. Ruby's mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), seems markedly more selfish, more fearful, and less empathetic than either her husband or her son Leo (Daniel Durant), but CODA itself feels fearful of etching distinct characters or holding each accountable to the implications of their specific choices and plotlines. Frank, Leo, and Jackie are often written and framed as a nondistinct unit, either as Ruby's consolidated support system or her monolithic problem, which feels artistically and ideologically dubious. Leo, in particular, feels narratively short-changed despite the repeated suggestions that he understands things about this family and its reflexes that other members don't see or won't admit.

Ruby, conversely, feels over-lavished with attention by a film that places wild pressure on her modest vocal gift and compulsively absolves her of responsibility in scenes where she's definitely the asshole. I wish the performances were stronger, but these problems are all baked into the script, as are whole forcefields of incoherence about the family's longterm standing in its community and a flat, anachronistic sense of deaf people as totally cut off from the worlds of sound, of music, of rights and accommodations, of political life, of communication with hearing people.

I guess the last thing I'll say (my coda about CODA) is that Heder is way too wedded to scapegoats and potshots as means to facilitate conflict or construct narrative and tone. Why portray deafness as a complicated experience unto itself and in deaf people's relations to hearing people—even when everyone is trying to work together or understand each other—when you can take the shortcuts of summoning the single-scene bigots you need in school cafeterias, in bars, in audition spaces, etc., to embody adversity as an individualized problem? Why explore the layered necessities and problems of government regulation of an industry like fishing, especially as it's felt in working people's lives, when you can just take a reckless and reactionary anti-regulation stance, get your audience cheering for some utterly out-of-character and unrealistic behavior from your leads, and present the woman assigned to monitor your boat as a cruel and incapable caricature? Why present the Berklee College of Music as a high-caliber institution with a justly formidable bar to entry when you could just make the arbiters of admission look like snooty dicks—just because you showed up late and without sheet music for your own big moment with them? And why explore with any texture or specificity the verbal and emotional lingua franca among your main characters when you can just lard their exchanges with sex gags and sophomoric profanities, as if this makes them Real People? I guess that's where I land on CODA: it's no more interested in engaging reality, even a consistent fictional construction of reality, than it is in engaging the unique expressive resources of cinema. Grade: C–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur
Best Adapted Screenplay: Siân Heder

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Supporting Actor: Troy Kotsur

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic); Audience Award (Dramatic); Best Director (Dramatic); Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast
Producers Guild of America: Best Picture
Screen Actors Guild Award: Best Ensemble Cast; Best Supporting Actor (Kotsur)
Writers Guild of America: Best Adapted Screenplay
Film Independent Spirit Award: Best Supporting Actor (Kotsur)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Kotsur)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actor (Kotsur); Best Adapted Screenplay

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