CODA (2021)

SIAN HEDER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA//, 2021. , , . Screenplay by Sian Heder, based on the film La Famille Belier by , , , . Cinematography by . Produced by , , , . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

has a lot on her shoulders as both an actor and as the lead character Ruby in this deeply touching family drama: the role requires her to communicate fluently in ASL while also having an incredible singing voice, both of which she pulls off effortlessly thanks to months of training. Thanks to Jones’s also being a talented performer, Ruby’s lifelong onus is one that captures the heart as she navigates growing up and growing away from a family that has relied on her as their connection to the outside world since she was a child, she is the only hearing member of her family of four (the title is an acronym for “Child Of Deaf Adults” as well as a music term), and because of this is always on hand to translate her deaf parents and brother to strangers. Her fisherman father () and eccentric mother () are also a goofily happy couple who rarely mind making a spectacle of themselves in front of Ruby’s peers, which also puts a lot of stress on her, she’s bullied by the mean girls at school and has only one close friend in their picturesque but economically struggling seaside Massachusetts town.

As her parents deal with the pressure being placed on all the fisherman in their town and the crushing fees being charged by their wholesalers, Ruby is drawn towards pursuing her love of singing, joining the school choir and accepting the offer when her exacting music teacher () offers to help her prepare for an audition for Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Believing she can keep all her balloons up in the air, Ruby studies every day with her teacher, goes on early morning boat rides with her dad and brother (), interprets for them at meetings as they set up their own distribution business and even sparks up a minor romance with the boy in her choir (Sing Street’s ), but maintaining her devotion to all these tasks eventually fills a twenty-four day and she must make a decision about what to focus on. Her choirmaster demands her full attention and she wants to give it, but singing is a world that her family cannot follow her into and, as much as the weight of their need for her is crushing her after so long, letting them go isn’t necessarily something she’s ready to do either.

Reminiscent of Caroline Link’s similarly themed Beyond Silence and featuring elements of Running On Empty (still the definitive word on coming of age family-estrangement drama), this beautifully etched film is actually a remake of Éric Lartigau’s La Famille Belier, which when released in 2014 caused quite the stir among the deaf community in France for having hearing actors in a majority of the lead roles. That unfortunate misstep has been corrected here and the actors who have been chosen are all superb, Matlin in particular has some magnificent moments as a woman who has chosen an outgoing manner of dress and style to hide her own fear of connecting with new people, and Kotsur matches her as a man who takes refuge on his fishing vessel for much the same reason.

Even more satisfying is how much grace the script allows each character’s perspective, Ruby’s family can be rather self-serving and Jones is right to want to be more than just the amanuensis for them, but the way they are often treated by others makes it clear that they also have good reason to want to keep things status quo. It’s not a movie that delivers hard, uncompromising realism, one could say that the plot’s resolution of its issues resembles a fairy tale, but within its rich, warm sentimentality is a subtle, never overstated but complex understanding of the pain that is at the heart of these characters’ lives, and, because of this, the emotional aspects of the story land in the exactly the right place in your slowly breaking heart.

Academy Awards: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur); Best Adapted Screenplay

Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kutsur)

Screen Actors Guild Awards:  Outstanding Motion Picture Cast; Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur)

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