CODA (Movie Review)

Movie Review
Starring: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin
Directed by: Sian Heder

I’ve been struggling to come up with a proper introductory paragraph for Sian Heder’s CODA. There is nothing remarkable about it: nothing in the film is must-see nor terrible and so trying to produce some catchy hook of a paragraph for you to read for the next 1000 words has been a challenge. The issue with that is that CODA is a really great film and so I was hoping to come up with something that will catch eyes and draw people to this movie. Despite its formulaic nature that makes it one of the least predictable films I’ve ever seen, its light-hearted story, relationships, and the acting make this film a charming affair.

Ruby (Jones) is the only one in her family who isn’t deaf (CODA stands for child of deaf adults). Along with her father Frank (Kotsur) and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), she works early mornings on the family fishing boat before she goes to school for the day. Her mother Jackie (Matlin) is the family’s bookkeeper. Chasing after her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), Ruby joins a choir class where her self-esteem issues from being habitually teased for coming from the “deaf family” causes her to flee on the first day.

After a meeting with her teacher, Bernado Villalobos (Derbez), she gives it another try. Seeing her raw talent and sensing her potential, Bernado decides to take her under his wing and help her get a music scholarship at a college in nearby Boston. Her family is opposed because they don’t understand why music is so important and that as the only one who can hear and talk in the family, she needs to work the family’s fishing boat. This last point becomes critical when Frank loses his boat license for not having a person of hearing on the boat during an inspection on the rare day that Ruby is not with him.

I could have continued with the rest of the plot but considering a movie review should be spoiler-free, I stopped. However, considering how predictable CODA is, you can see where this film is coming from and where it is going. That sounds like a bad thing, but it only is when a movie has nothing to offer. Thankfully, what CODA suffers from in lack of twists, it makes up in character development and relationships (although there are a few missteps there too). There are times where the lack of surprise is a good thing: it’s comforting and creates a sense of happiness. Granted, there are ways that the script could have been developed so that the tense or fork-in-the-road moments could have provided some sort of unknown or at least teased the high possibility that something uncertain may happen. Yet, even though the expected outcome was always the result, it never felt disappointing.

It’s the little things that make this film great and give it colour. The interplay and relationship between the characters is well crafted. Ruby’s relationships between her father and her teacher are both incredibly touching. You feel the love between Ruby and Frank, but you see the pain that they both feel as they don’t quite understand each other’s world. The touching tender moment between them towards the end of the movie will hit the heart of even the heartless. Contrast that to the connection between Ruby and Bernado and you can understand why Bernado will dedicate himself to Ruby’s success yet willing to crucify her if she stumbles. He’ll tell her that their arrangement is over not to punish her, but to show her that she needs to break out of her bubble. The way the character is written, it appears that he’s a grouchy prima donna, but as the arc grows, you see along with Ruby exactly how well-intentioned and methodical his actions are; as if what you’re seeing on screen develop is through Ruby’s eyes.

Even Ruby’s relationship with her brother is well conceived as it’s much more than the trope of handicapped vs. non-handicapped sibling. Leo is more than just a plot device as his character arc and his spotlight moments have substance. Typically, in this type of movie, this character has a few throwaway lines and is forgotten. Leo, on the other hand, is treated like a forgotten character and is aware of this and acts out because of it. The way his character develops is near genius as he’s kind of in the background, but you can see him start to boil. It gets to a point where Leo’s frustrations about how he is ignored take centre stage, like a pot on a stove that you’ve let boil far too long.

Additionally, you have Frank on his own struggling to deal with his shrinking fish business and his reluctance to deal with hearing-abled people. While not the focus of the film, his storyline is just as compelling and interesting as Ruby’s. The shift between a guy who does what he likes within his own bubble because it makes him comfortable to someone who is willing to deal with his fears and anxieties to grow as a person is a story that could have been a movie all by itself.

It’s not all perfect though. While Marlee Matlin is great as the oddball mother, she does feel a bit out of place. The connection with Ruby is not like anyone in the film and feels like a misfire. In one scene, she’s anxious about her daughter potentially leaving to go to college but does very little throughout the film (except towards the end) to develop a loving relationship with her daughter.

Another shortcoming of the film is the lack of Bernado despite the strength of the character and how integral he is to Ruby’s growth. Bernado is such an interesting character and while it’s understandable that since the movie is supposed to revolve around Ruby and her relationship with her family, Bernado sometimes feels unnatrually relegated to the sidelines. It feels like a whole other movie could have been made about Bernado taking Ruby under her wing and dive deeper into his journey. Perhaps it’s a testament to Derbez’s performance or maybe it’s the teacher in me, but at the end of the film, I felt that there was more of Bernado’s story to tell. You get the feeling that at the beginning of the movie, Bernado is putting on this act of being a diva, but then shows this serious buttoned-down side as the movie progresses. The shift in his personality feels manufactured to fit the scene, rather than due to an organically-developed progression.

Another character that seems to get lost is Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who is Ruby’s best friend, but you’re never really sure why. Considering that Ruby is an outcast at her school and there are scenes where Gertie is perplexed by Ruby, it would have been nice to see or learn how that relationship developed. Most of her scenes feel so unimportant, most notably her relationship with Leo. Considering that Forsyth did a really good job making Gertie an interesting character that cares deeply for Ruby, it’s too bad that she didn’t have more to work with; especially considering how the film did a great job making most of the other supporting characters interesting.

CODA is a pleasant and enjoyable film. Siam Heder played it safe with this movie and that’s perfectly fine. The characters, stories, and sub-plot make this a film worth seeing, even if you feel like you’ve seen this type of movie already. Movies doesn’t always have to be revolutionary or mind-blowing. They can serve as a warm bowl of chicken soup when you need something lighthearted and gentle. CODA is fun to watch and something I can see myself watching multiple times without reservation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Jamie Gore

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