Best Picture Winner 'CODA' Breaks New Ground in Its Casting, Not in Its Story | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

On Screen » Movie+TV Reviews

Best Picture Winner 'CODA' Breaks New Ground in Its Casting, Not in Its Story


TREADING WATER Jones plays a hearing child of deaf adults looking for her life's path in Heder's lightweight but appealing Best Picture winner. - COURTESY OF APPLE TV+
  • Courtesy Of Apple Tv+
  • TREADING WATER Jones plays a hearing child of deaf adults looking for her life's path in Heder's lightweight but appealing Best Picture winner.

To the surprise of many, Netflix is not the first streaming service to have produced a Best Picture winner. That Oscar night honor (and two others) went to CODA, from the relative newcomer Apple TV+.

Adapted from a 2014 French-Belgian film and directed by Sian Heder (Tallulah), CODA was a crowd favorite at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Besides streaming on Apple TV+, it screens at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington through April 7 (after that, check showtimes).

The deal

Emilia JonesRuby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA — child of deaf adults. As the only hearing person in her family, which makes a precarious living fishing the coastal waters of Gloucester, Mass., she has grown up interpreting for her parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and her older brother (Daniel Durant).

Now in her senior year of high school, Ruby knows she's expected to stay close to home and continue to be her family's liaison to the hearing world. But she harbors a secret passion — to sing.

The school's choral director (Eugenio Derbez) tells Ruby she has a rare talent and urges her to try out for the Berklee College of Music. Meanwhile, new regulations on fishing imperil the family's survival, pushing Ruby toward a choice between supporting her loved ones and following her dream.

Will you like it?

I'll just say up front that movies advertised as "heartwarming" usually aren't for me. CODA is the essence of a heartwarming movie — a little broad in its characterizations, a little over-fond of clichés, and relentless in its promotion of love, art and dreams as the answers to everything.

Watching as Ruby progresses from her first formal singing lesson to her Berklee audition in a matter of months, I couldn't help being reminded of Flashdance and other heartfelt, none-too-realistic movies of the '80s in which a dewy-faced kid follows their show-biz dreams to glory. Never mind the years of unglamorous practice that most aspiring musicians and other artists have to endure. If you believe in yourself and submit to the guidance of a suitably crusty and/or eccentric mentor, you can be ready for your standing ovation in less than a year!

CODA would be an unbearably retro movie if it didn't combine that story line with some undeniably fresh elements. First, there's the casting of deaf actors as deaf characters — still a novelty in Hollywood, even though it shouldn't be. Kotsur is now the second deaf actor in film history to win an Oscar (Matlin was the first in 1986). Wiry, bright-eyed and believable as a salt-of-the-earth fisherman, the actor infuses every scene he's in with energy. His signing is so expressive that hearing viewers may find themselves forgetting to read the subtitles.

Equally compelling is Jones, a young veteran of British TV who's somehow utterly convincing as a fresh-faced American teenager. Shy at school, boisterous and profane with her family, Ruby uses music to unite her two halves. It's hard not to tear up when she comes into her own with a tender, triumphant performance of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides, Now."

These actors anchor CODA to reality, both delivering performances that nearly make you forget how boilerplate the rest of the movie is. Durant is also intensely likable, though his and Matlin's characters get short shrift.

While the film's deaf characters are multifaceted, some deaf viewers have questioned whether CODA draws too much of its pathos from stereotypes. For instance, Ruby's mom considers her daughter's passion for singing a betrayal, reinforcing a weary film trope of music as something the deaf yearn in vain to experience. The family is also dependent on Ruby to help them deal with doctors, journalists and the Coast Guard — though the Americans With Disabilities Act would, at least in theory, mandate professional interpreters in such situations. For a nuanced discussion of this and other points from a deaf critic's perspective, check out Rikki Poynter's review of CODA on YouTube.

CODA is one of those movies that entice viewers with edgy, indie-style elements, only to deliver a predictably crowd-pleasing experience. It's a perfect film for Academy voters, who tend to prefer to vote for an underdog without embracing anything too weird.

Funny and poignant by turns, CODA is solid entertainment. Still, I wish the filmmakers had trusted us to be interested in a portrait of this family that didn't hinge on Ruby's overblown conflict between duty and dreams.

If you like this, try...

No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie (2013; rentable): Kotsur directed this family drama about a deaf kid who draws inspiration from a deaf TV star who himself struggles to get respect in Hollywood.

Sound of Metal (2019; Amazon Prime Video): Riz Ahmed plays a heavy metal drummer who experiences sudden hearing loss and finds a sense of renewal in a Deaf community in this indie drama that won Oscars for editing and sound design. Paul Raci, who plays the hero's deaf mentor, is a real-life CODA.

Children of a Lesser God (1986; Hoopla, Pluto TV, rentable): Matlin won a historic Oscar for her role as a fierce young janitor who embarks on a tumultuous romance with a hearing teacher (William Hurt) at a school for the Deaf.