Review: CODA

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In this year’s Oscars, CODA picked up the award for Best Picture. In recent years, the thrill and eminence of the Academy have waned along with its viewership numbers — its respectability particularly came into question when Will Smith received an Oscar and a standing ovation after excusing violence on the basis of his inability to distinguish between “art [and] life”. The purely subjective question of the Best Film of the Year will never be unanimously agreed upon. Even so, there is a growing consensus that the Academy Awards are nothing more than trivial, politicised indications of Hollywood’s highly westernised film taste. Year after year, it’s typically the same group of actors in the same kinds of movies that do well in these awards ceremonies. 

CODA’s only flaw being an admittedly cookie-cutter plot structure speaks to its excellence otherwise. Despite its formulaic feel-good nature, it was refreshingly unique and perfectly executed for a film of this sort. I was, however, slightly disappointed to later learn that the script was not entirely novel, but based on La Famille Bélier. Largely due to CODA’s employment of deaf crew and actors, the adaptation is nevertheless a monumental improvement on the original French film, marked by the BAFTA and Oscar it received for Best Adapted Screenplay.

There is a growing consensus that the Academy Awards are nothing more than trivial, politicised indications of Hollywood’s highly westernised film taste

CODA is both a musical term and an acronym for ‘Child Of Deaf Adults’. This title reflects the double-entendres that the film plays with to great dramatic and comedic effect. It also aptly symbolises the dilemma the protagonist faces: moving to the big city in pursuit of a musical future or remaining a small-town girl, interpreting for her family that depends on her to make a living. Her mother, father and brother are all deaf and make their money fishing. Ruby’s presence on the boat is needed to notice signals and coastal announcements out at sea. Consequently, she regularly awakes at the crack of dawn to help her family bring in the morning catch. As the only hearing family member, she bears responsibility and shows maturity beyond her years. Bartering with fish vendors, accompanying her parents to the doctors, communicating with unsympathetic authorities, turning up to school perpetually exhausted and stinking of fish, Ruby’s life is by no means an easy one.

On account of her family’s deafness, Ruby only learned to speak after joining school, resulting in insecurities and speech difficulties that make her doubt her musical excellence. The passion and talent she possesses are, of course, lost on her family, who can neither relate nor tell whether she is any good. Ruby’s mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin — the first deaf actor to win an Oscar) struggles to connect with her daughter, not least because of her lack of disability. 

This discord and unique struggle of a CODA is humorously demonstrated in a scene where Ruby begrudges the ban of headphones at the dinner table but approval of swiping through son Leo’s Tinder as it is “something we can all do as a family”. Ruby’s father (Troy Kotsur — this year becoming the second-ever deaf actor to win an Oscar) is a hilariously uncouth character who makes more of an effort to understand and support the dreams of his daughter. 

A quirky high school music teacher (exactly how I pictured Lin-Manuel Miranda’s uncle) is intrigued by Ruby’s unlikely love and raw talent for singing. The blunt, impassioned and dedicated Mr Villalobos offers her additional classes in the hopes of securing a scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. These extra classes alone are proving near-impossible to fit into Ruby’s schedule, already filled with family business-related duties. 

Jones’ performance makes for a moving and entertaining watch grounded not in spectacle, but heartfelt emotion

Emilia Jones, as Ruby Rossi, whose character name alone sounds like that of someone destined for stardom, is the strong lead of a phenomenal cast. Despite being British, Jones’ American accent is flawless as, having taken singing, fishing and sign language lessons for the film, she gives an emotive and convincing performance. Featured songs from Etta James and Marvin Gaye don’t get tiring as Ruby practices them diligently with her crush, Miles. Movies centred around a vocal talent always risk over-indulgence in musical moments, but Jones’ performance makes for a moving and entertaining watch grounded not in spectacle, but heartfelt emotion. 

For a story characterised by hardship, love and dilemma, CODA is a surprisingly funny film. Much of the humour comprises dramatic irony and the awkwardness of Ruby’s idiosyncratic role as she filters the vulgarity and veracity of translations between deaf and hearing characters. The peculiarities of Ruby’s interactions involving her family and others remain universal, as demonstrated by a comically uncomfortable sex-talk scene that ensues after her parents’ unconsciously loud love-making.

CODA has received criticism for being too blatant a crowd-pleaser, yet its predictability is not to the detriment of its captivating quality. Despite containing the familiar ingredients of an American high school comedic drama, it’s good to see a low-budget independent film win in the Best Picture category at the Oscars. Given its rather hackneyed story arch, if it had fallen short in any other aspect, it would have been hugely disappointing. To its credit, it hit every note impeccably, making it the perfectly executed, landmark feel-good film the deaf community deserved. 

Image: Mirko Fabian via Unsplash

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