CAST: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin, Amy Forsyth, Kevin Chapman
RUNNING TIME: 111 mins
BASICALLY…: A hearing teen (Jones) from an all-deaf family finds herself torn between pursuing her musical passions and her family commitments…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review of CODA was conducted as part of the Sundance Film Festival: London.
The biggest hit at January’s online edition of Sundance was by far writer-director Sian Heder’s CODA; in addition to receiving rapturous critic reviews and audience feedback, and winning a stellar four awards including the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, Best Director and a special honour for its ensemble cast, distribution rights were sold to Apple for a record $25 million. Buzz continues to be rather strong leading up to its release in both cinemas and Apple TV+, with some calling it a possible contender for further awards later in the year.
All this for a film that is, when you really break it down, formulaic to a tee. Make no mistake, it’s a rather good example of the formula, but for something that has inspired so much hype and anticipation, one can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by how closely it sticks to a certain template, even with all its numerous qualities.
CODA is an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults; that child is 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of the Rossi family, who are all otherwise completely deaf. Both her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin), and her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant), rely on Ruby to provide translation for the rest of the world, especially with their struggling fishing business which is barely struggling to make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, though, Ruby has a rather excellent singing voice, and upon signing up for the school choir – which is mostly to get closer to her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) – her choir director Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) helps her bring out her talent. However, as the pressures of her family duties and her new singing ambitions pile up, Ruby is ultimately left with a choice that will determine her entire future.
If you’ve already pieced together the kind of story that this is, then you should know that whatever way you are picturing things turning out in your head, CODA will most likely do that in spades. It is a predictable movie, because you know what the conflicts are going to be, how they’re going to be resolved, what kind of arcs the characters are going to go through, and what lessons you are likely to take away from it. Director Sian Heder’s script is firmly rooted in the formula it is working from, that of the underdog coming-of-age narrative where the young protagonist taps into an undiscovered talent of theirs, and it rarely deviates from its own set path, which does make it incredibly easy to pinpoint exactly where you are at certain points in the story, from the inciting incident to the third-act conflict. It’s not exactly the most challenging storyline, and by the end of it you’ll have gotten pretty much everything you were expecting out of it.
The question is, though, does it execute the formula well? The answer to that is: yes, it does.
For all its predictability and rather safe narrative, CODA is an incredibly sweet-natured drama, boosted by some bright physical performances, sensitive direction, and a profound platform from which its hard-of-hearing cast can expertly match their more abled counterparts. The film’s casting of real-life deaf actors is a wonderful notion by the filmmakers, as it brings a level of authenticity and even gives a new perspective for this familiar story, but there is also something rather endearing about the way that these characters, and their performers, interact with one another. Sign language is practically an artform here, as it is used for a number of very funny dialogue exchanges between this family unit which do feel like your average family interaction (albeit with more hand movements), while at the same time it doesn’t entirely define their eccentric personalities. It also doesn’t excuse some of them for behaviour which can be rather unreasonable at times, such as their lack of encouragement when Ruby initially reveals her passion for singing, which is understandable from their perspective but still comes across as somewhat selfish and inconsiderate. However, when the time is right, they do show their undying support and belief in the talents and aspirations of one another, even if it doesn’t exactly match their specific needs. The point is, these are all good and well-rounded characters, played excellently by actors across the board, and are again not defined by whether or not they can hear.
It is most certainly a crowd-pleasing film, designed to make the audience laugh, cry, cheer and gasp at all the right moments, and almost every time you are onboard with this story and these characters, even though you are overly familiar with the directions it is taking. Heder’s film is gently paced, spending enough time with certain people to give you an understanding of what they’re all about, while letting all the necessary plot beats to play out in their own time without rushing things. It’s incredibly easy to see why CODA has gone over so well with initial audiences at Sundance, because it inhibits a true down-to-earth charm and likeability, whilst also being genuine about its topics and themes without turning them into the subject of the day, all while taking a few risks such as the hiring of a largely HOH cast to enact this very familiar Hollywood-friendly template.
As much as it’s a well-done drama that the vast majority of people will enjoy, I do wish it took a few more chances with its story and didn’t rely on aspects which nearly everyone has seen by this point. Honestly, in terms of originality or even movies with a predominantly HOH cast that do take more risks in their storytelling, Sound of Metal is a stronger and more poignant movie than this. However, it’s not like I had a bad time at all watching CODA; it’s still a perfectly fine movie to recommend, even if you have to sit through a lot of familiar beats in order to get to the good stuff.
SO, TO SUM UP…
CODA is a sweet-natured and hugely likeable crowd-pleaser that is sensitively directed by Sian Heder and wonderfully performed by a mostly HOH cast, but its heavy reliance on a familiar formula makes it a rather predictable story to follow, no matter how well-executed the final product is.
CODA will be released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 13th August 2021 – click here to find a screening near you!
It will also be available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.