Saturday, September 18, 2021

Film Review: CODA (Apple TV)

 Coda poster.jpeg

Sexuality/Nudity Mature
Violence No Objection
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

Sometimes you just want to watch a nice, touching film that is uplifting and affirming about life.

And that's what you get with CODA.

The movie centers around Ruby (Emilia Jones), a teenage girl who lives with her deaf family: father Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  They are a fishermen family, barely scraping by.  Ruby loves her family, but her secret passion is singing, which her family cannot understand or appreciate.  Ruby keeps mostly to herself in high school (except for her loose friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth)) because of her poverty, a history of being bullied, and a constant smell of fish that surrounds her.  She decides to join a choir class because the boy she has a crush on (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).  After some initial resistance, her teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) sees her potential and pushes her to try for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music.  Much of the movie follows Ruby as the pull of her family and the call of her future tear her in opposite directions.

This is a movie that is beautiful in its straightforward simplicity.  I actually admire a movie that understands what its heart is and makes that the central focus.  My biggest critique is that there is some unnecessary vulgarity and sexual talk.  I get the feeling that these elements were inserted so that this movie would be dismissed as some saccharine Hallmark film.  The added spice of some adult language and sex talk preclude that and make it more "serious."  But they are actually distractions from the beauty of the story.  In order to make the movie more "mature" it actually makes it less accessible.

CODA captures Ruby's sense of alienation.  Her family never truly understands her, but she cannot be angry at them for their lack of understanding.  She knows the place she has in her family and how much they depend on her.  It is unfair how much the parents lean on the child, but that is the circumstance they find themselves in.  And Leo cannot help but feel passed over and emasculated by his baby sister.  And yet Ruby's prison is one with an open door.  The only thing keeping her in this position the genuine love and affection the family has.

Another thing that I loved about the movie was Derbez' performance as Mr. Villalobos.  As a teacher, I appreciated the fact that he demanded greatness from Ruby because he saw her potential.  He did not coddle her.  He pushed her.  He did not let her feel sorry for herself.  Ruby tells him how the other kids made fun of her because she talked "funny" as a child because of her parents.  Instead of letting her wallow in self-pity, he says to her "Do you think you are the only one who was made fun of for talking different?"  In this, he is not dismissing her pain, but opening her up to the pain other people feel.  He is not letting her run from her trauma.  He is helping her use her trauma as fuel for her greatness.  I get the feeling that Villalobos had a bigger storyline in the movie but it was cut for time.

Everything culminates with her audition.  Writer/director Sian Heder brings all of the plot, character, and emotional threads to this moment and knows exactly how to converge them.  To very honest, I have rewatched this scene several times with my wife.  It is something that lingers with you long after the movie is over.  This is no small feat in an age when disposable entertainment fades from the memory quickly like a polaroid, but in reverse.  CODA is able to work its way into your memory and heart.

And this would not be possible without the great performances.  Emilia Jones is utterly fantastic.  As emotional as it is, she knows how to pull her feelings in reserve.  She feels like the average teenager going through deep internal struggles.  You always get the sense that she can never be truly herself either at home or in public and that she always has to play a part.  Normally if a movie has a conflict between a teenagers artistic dreams and responsibilities to the family, I am very critical of the teenager (see my review of Blinded by the Light).  But Jones makes me feel her frustration and the need to break away.  Kotsur and Matlin have great chemistry and really play well the alienation they feel from Ruby.  I really liked Durant's frustration.  There is a wonderful scene where he goes to hang out a bar with the local fishermen.  The are kind and welcoming enough, but he has such trouble keeping up with what is happening that I could not help but squirm.  Durant makes you feel ever ounce of that.  Derbez is mostly known for his comedic work, but he handles the drama very well.  He can communicate more with one stern most can.

CODA is nice movie.  That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it really isn't.  There are very few movies that lighten the heart the way this movie does.  Watch it and you will feel the same.

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