Though formulaic to a fault, CODA is full of well observed and beautiful moments. It is a lovely film, a great portrait of a family in which each member feels like a character and is given the room to have an interior and exterior life. The framework around these figures is not as remarkable, and at points is uneven, and the presentation is sometimes at odds with the content, but it is a stirring and emotional feature.
CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, used here polysemically (evoking its musical meaning) as the film is also about our protagonist, high schooler Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), pursuing her love of music. Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family, the film’s drama being built around that specific situation. The film is based on, and seemingly very much expanded from, a 2014 French movie La Famille Bélier. In CODA, we cut between Ruby’s parent’s struggling fishing business and Ruby’s growing success as a vocalist. Ruby’s parents rely on her, because society has built in a way that prioritises hearing people, and frequently is inflexible and shows no understanding of the deaf community. Ruby is their interpreter in many situations or simply allows her family to be in situations they otherwise wouldn’t be. Therefore, the narrative is built around a conflict between independence and necessity: does following a dream mean abandoning her parents?
The path to this conflict seems rather contrived. It is a very expected arc reliant on formulaic failures and clichéd brilliance. (and some stock characters outside of the family). It is hyperbolic, filmic storytelling and feels very neat. The narratives also don’t tie that well together, with odd digressions into what I can only describe as ‘fishing politics’, which don’t sit neatly in the overall film. Issues around labour disputes down on the docks pull the film in another direction, when it is better at being a vehicle to express its family dynamic. Yes, the core plot is clichéd but this is wrapped around a unique centre, and it supports it. When we pull away from this, it is no way near as interesting.
There is an impressive frankness and matureness to the film. This does not shy away from the actual issues of the family’s situation. Sexual content is dealt with quite frequently and our characters talk about things that feel like things actual adults and teens talk about. This brings a reality that really helps the film, and that makes it relevant. CODA is at its best when it is opening our eyes to the situations of others, and doing so to build character. The maturity aids this and it helps to make the film not feel toned down or saccharine. Though, the film’s expression is at odds with this. The formulaic structure is matched with a broad presentation. The filmmaking exists to front performances, and they are excellent, but there’s a mainstream gloss to the direction. It feels like it is trying to speak to the broadest audience, despite limiting itself from that audience with its content. One is left wishing that the tone and direction had the same frankness, and atypicality, as the subject matter.
But, as mentioned, this does bring performances to the fore. Everybody is great here but Troy Kotsur as the father, Frank, deserves special mention. It is worth pointing out that CODA is cast correctly, using people who are deaf playing people who are deaf (a low bar, perhaps, but one rarely met and therefore worth celebrating). Kotsur is a brilliant screen presence, full of charisma, but also incredibly tender. It is a nuanced performance built around his chemistry with the other characters. His portrayal of a father in a difficult situation, with all its messy edges and conflicting emotions, is note perfect. It is a stunning turn and one worthy of accolades.
Alas, the word worthy is what comes to mind too often when discussing CODA. Because it is a worthy a film. A good film, even, but a worthy one. There is an implication here that its duty, or its societal worth, outranks its quality. It is important because it deals with an important subject matter, not just because of itself. And, sadly, this is rather true. The clichéd elements and the broad feeling don’t help CODA; its performances and many beautiful moments do. The film is a success but doesn’t always come together quite right. Still, it is not only worthy but worthwhile and, in spite of a lingering familiarity in expression, does feel like a breath of fresh air as a whole.