‘CODA’ Is Conventionally Beautiful

Sian Heder's Sundance smash hit avoids coming-of-age movie pitfalls by focusing on characters rarely seen on the big screen.

by Aubrey McKay

Who doesn’t like to feel good after a movie? Even in the face of what I venture to believe is a universal truth (feeling good, is good), it seems as if the “feel-good” movie often gets a bad rap. Whether it’s for lack of depth or examination of a topic, its simplistic and formulaic plot, or a story that leans into its emotion too heavily, this type of movie can be looked down upon. However, when done well, a film can use these same tropes and expectations to elevate itself among its peers. Such is the case with CODA, the Sundance darling and newest release on Apple TV+.

CODA tells a unique story of high school senior Ruby (Emilia Jones) and her family. Ruby works on her family’s boat in the mornings before school, where she has no real aspirations apart from her love of singing. Her lack of ambition is fueled more by necessity than apathy. Ruby doesn’t just merely work with her family; she is an integral part of its existence since she is the only person in her family with the ability to hear. Being a child of deaf adults (CODA), presents an unusual situation for Ruby’s coming of age, especially when you consider her passion and incredible talent for singing. This is where CODA, as a film, sets itself apart. Its unique spin on a familiar story allows for it to feel fresh in spite of its conventions.

It Is What It Is

CODA being the darling of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival is a bit surprising, even as a first-time attendee of the festival. Something as conventional and “feel-good” as this isn’t what you expect to win several awards, sell for the highest price in the festival’s history, and become an awards contender. But that’s exactly what CODA did, and in a time when skepticism and cynicism come far more often than optimism, this film has broken through. It’s the very thing that isn’t unique about it that is allowing it to stand out, and that’s its earnestness. CODA is what it is. There is no bait and switch here, no subverting tropes or anything overly clever. It is exactly what it appears to be, a feel-good, coming-of-age story that will surely tug at your emotions. That is the most beautiful part about it.

Director Sian Heder uses convention and predictability in her favor. This is a story about people, not what is happening to them. The plot isn’t overly important because everything is about this family. Without all of the extra stuff, we can be open to a new experience. Heder is essentially introducing us to a new world. The makeup of the Rossi family is not a typical one. Understanding their dynamics, their struggles, their fears, and how they cope is essential to the experience. Heder introduces us to all of that with convention. We are able to tap into the emotions of each character and understand them on a deeper level. Here is where the beauty is. Our emotional connection to these people is what drives this film and once Heder reels us in, she nails every emotional beat along the way. Not because the plot calls for it, rather because we care so deeply about these people.

Earnestness Comes from the Performances

Heder does an unquestionably good job at telling this story, and specifically drawing empathy toward an unfamiliar situation. However, a lot of the film’s earnestness comes from the performances. Emilia Jones as Ruby is so charming. You fall for her immediately. She’s able to capture the easily relatable angst of being a teenager and standing out in your family, but also balance that with the pressure of being such a valuable member to it. While she breaks out in the conventional sense of being the young star of the film, it’s Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin that do it for me. As deaf actors, there is a natural authenticity brought to their performances. However, it’s how they bridge the gap for the audience that is so incredible.

As parents of a teenager, they both must deal with the sudden prospects of their child leaving to pursue her dreams. That is hard enough alone, but also coping with the fact that her dream is something that they cannot physically participate in, or experience is truly gutting. The vulnerability that Matlin gives as she confesses her fears of being a bad mother because she is deaf and Ruby isn’t, is truly stunning. As is the incredibly emotional scene when Frank asks his daughter to sing to him on the back of his truck. The emotion they both capture in these moments is really what CODA is about. Sharing an experience with an audience that will never fully understand the struggles those parents face in those moments, while also fully feeling every moment because it’s so relatable.

CODA is Endearing and Inspiring

CODA is a feel-good story. It’s one that leans as hard into its feel-good and its optimism as it can. In this moment, I find that to be endearing and even inspiring. To unabashedly wear your heart on your sleeve and so earnestly tell your story is beautiful. Unfortunately, CODA feels unique in that way. As conventional as it is, there is no other story like this one. That’s because there aren’t characters like these, and you don’t see families like this. The love that the Rossi family shows in this film is an aspirational one. And as a father of a one-year-old born without an ear, whose hearing is still in question, I am so incredibly thankful for this story. It’s shown me that no matter what happens and how different my son and I are, we can still connect. Ultimately, that is all that really matters.

Follow MovieBabble on Twitter @MovieBabble_ and follow Aubrey @ajmckay24.

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1 comment

Nick Kush August 26, 2021 - 2:47 pm

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