There is a special taste of family movies that I associate with 1990s movies like Beethoven or Free Willy or Mrs. Doubtfire. Some are screwball comedies, others far more sober, and they are always sentimental, but in a good way. Ordinary people learn important lessons about love, belonging, and maturity, and perhaps we do too.
CODA is not about children – its teenage protagonist is about to finish high school – but it gave me the same cozy feeling when it premiered at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival in January. I was not alone. Even though we were lying on our couches instead of being squeezed into theaters in Utah, you could still feel the hum, mostly on Twitter. (And it literally gave paw when Apple bought the film for a record $ 25 million; the film will be released in theaters and on Apple TV + at the same time.)
There is always a hype associated with big Sundance movies, but the audience response made good sense in this case. CODA follows a formula for growing up that feels familiar, and like the movies I remember from my youth, it is a little corny at times. But it is also fresh and innovative in important ways – and it definitely won my heart.
“Coda” is a musical expression, referring to the last bit of music before the end of a piece – the finale, the conclusion. But it is also an acronym for child of deaf adults, as Ruby Rossi (the excellent Emilia Jones) is. Ruby is the only hearing member of her family, which also consists of her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin, who is also the only deaf artist to have won an Oscar). Ruby has spent his life as his family’s de facto translator. The Rossians live in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and own a small fishing business, although they are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
Ruby is about to finish high school and loves to sing; her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her to consider studying music in college, but she is not even sure that college is an option. Her family has not always felt welcome in the larger community and they need her. And of course there’s a boy in the picture.
Ruby’s struggle to balance his own ambitions with his family forms the backbone of the film, but each of the Rossians is on their own journey, imagining what the future may hold for them when this chapter in life is over. (This is where the double meaning of “coda” comes in.) It’s a very funny movie, heartfelt and heartwarming, full of music and love.
CODA is the rare film that not only features mostly deaf characters in the lead roles, but also cast deaf actors – Durant, Kotsur and Matlin are all deaf. In a post-screening Q&A for Sundance, author and director Sian Heder (who hears) described the work of learning American sign language while writing the script and using it on set. It is extremely unusual in an industry where most deaf roles still go to hearing actors, despite the fact that many deaf actors struggle to find work. The trend has shifted, albeit at a glacial pace; Millicent Simmonds playing in Quiet place movies, for example, are deaf.
Some deaf critics have raised important issues with the film on a historical level – there is still a long way to go to make films that do not inadvertently pass on messages that can be harmful.
Yet it is true that CODA is unusual, especially among audience-friendly films, in that it seems to even out the experiences of both the hearing and deaf characters through its filmmaking. In a series of scenes, for example, the sound drops out so the audience can experience what is happening in the same way as the Rossi family does. Combined with ample use of sign language throughout the film, it feels like a movement forward.
And in a groundbreaking step, all theater performances of CODA will use “open captions, ”Which means the subtitles will be on the screen itself rather than requires special glasses to see those that may be defective or hard on the eyes. Some films (including last year’s Oscar nominees Metal sound) has chosen open screening screenings, but CODA is the first to do so for all views.
That all of this happens in such a friendly, funny, and occasionally tearful movie — one that is no less about a teenager’s musical ambitions — feels like a balm. CODA is the definition of an easy-to-watch movie, comfort food for tired souls. But the old and maybe even hackneyed tropics are enhanced by the film’s originality, and the result is pleasing, sweet and worth seeing.
CODA plays in cinemas and streams on Apple TV +.
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