CODA on Apple Plus.

ENTERTAINMENT – CODA, Double Sundance Film Festival Winner, Premieres on Apple Plus

Sundance winner “CODA” Is a Warm, Hilariously Funny Crowd-Pleaser About Deaf Culture

At first glance, a coming-of-age story about the musical dreams of a Child of Deaf Adults (or a “CODA” on Apple Plus) seems like it might background its disabled characters — much like the film on which it was based, the 2014 French comedy “La Famille Bélier,” which drew criticism for casting hearing actors in key deaf roles. However, writer-director Sian Heder makes vast improvements over the original, thanks in no small part to her deaf collaborators, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, and a deaf supporting cast. While CODA certainly explores deafness and Deaf culture from a hearing point of view — responses from the Deaf community have varied from positive to critical — the film relies neither on pity nor patronizing inspiration-porn for its most moving moments.

 

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As much as the film is about a culture clash along the lines of disability, it’s just as much a story of a fishing family and the hurdles they face as members of Massachusetts’ working class. Each performance breathes life and nuance into what could easily have been a misfire. Instead, the result is tremendously sweet, uproariously funny and one of the best crowd-pleasers this year.

Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant star in “CODA” on Apple Plus.

“CODA” hardly aims to surprise you with its plot, but its unique delights lie in the way it captures its characters.

English actress Emilia Jones plays Ruby Rossi, a hearing girl who’s reserved around her high school classmates, but who sings loudly and signs boisterously around her goofy, easygoing father, Frank (Troy Kostur), and her sarcastic, headstrong brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) on their rickety fishing vessel. She’s just as expressive at home, though a tad less open about her love for music with her overbearing mother Jackiee (Marlee Matlin, the first and thus far only deaf performer to win an Academy Award), who helps with the sales side of the family business, and whose aversion to hearing culture and people stems from insecurities the film goes on to tenderly explore.

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Ruby, in addition to working on the family’s boat, is also their interpreter (and by proxy, their negotiator at the pier), a necessity in a small town that makes little effort to accommodate them. The Rossis have a comfortable working rhythm, though this is slowly thrown off course when Ruby finds herself spread thin between her early-morning trawling and her new passion for the school choir. She’s an exceptional singer — her strict teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) thinks she has what it takes to audition for Berklee — but her family commitments could very well complicate that journey.

Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin star as mother and daughter in “CODA” on Apple Plus.

The film is keenly aware of the relationship between people and their bodies, and it doesn’t limit this focus to their deafness or hearing.

“CODA” hardly aims to surprise you with its plot — it is, after all, a remake of a fairly bland and straightforward film — but its unique delights lie in the way it captures its characters, both individually and in groups. Ruby, though she has no trouble exchanging barbs and petty insults with Leo, hides beneath layers of baggy clothes and a fringe cut at school. Where the original film treated music solely as a clash with deafness (and in the process, treated its deaf characters as a monolith), CODA frames it more as a clash with Ruby’s responsibilities, and with her desire to stay out of sight, which in turn stems from the nasty words hurled at her family, to which only she is privy.

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Her family members all have varying opinions on her talents too, which are tied intrinsically to their individual lives outside of her. Leo is immediately and unequivocally supportive of her dreams, in part because of his brotherly duty, though he also hopes to prove himself, without her help, to a world that looks down at him. For Leo, Ruby going off to college would be a win-win, even if he hasn’t quite thought things through. The brother role in La Famille Bélier, while the only major part played by a deaf actor, was barely a blip, but CODA allows Daniel Durant plenty of time to simmer as a withheld-but-caring twenty something from the American Northeast, with all the hyper-masculine baggage that entails. His portrayal is always enticing, even when he keeps to himself.

As Jackiee, Marlee Matlin turns in an incredibly fun performance that conceals layers of maternal anxieties. Jackie is upbeat and personable when she signs, but her defensiveness, when dealing with the prospect of Ruby going to college, often comes off as terse. When she finally begins to confront what’s bothering her, this usually takes the form of glances during isolated moments, wherein Matlin allows Jackiee’s smile to drop, and allows her self-doubt to float to the surface, before she covers it up again. Exploring traditional gender roles as they intersect with disability is by no means an explicit focus (see also: Leo’s constant need to prove himself) but a few of Jackiee’s lines hint at her use of dresses and makeup as means to cope, or blend in, with a world in which she doesn’t feel at ease. Ruby, by contrast, carries herself with a certain (tom)boyishness, and though she’s into a boy at school — her duet partner, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) — she bristles against the feminine norms her mother indulges in and nudges her towards. The film is keenly aware of the relationship between people and their bodies, and it doesn’t limit this focus to their deafness or hearing.

Eugenio Derbez and Emilia Jones star in “CODA.”

Why everyone should see ‘CODA’, a heartwarming (and often hilarious) film that marches to its own beat.

They say you’re supposed to deal with the cards dealt to you in life, and find a way to make do with what you have. Few understand that reality more than Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), our heroine in the award-winning (and worthy) new Apple TV Original film.

She gets up at 3 a.m. every morning to help her family run their fish boat, which is the main livelihood for most families in the small town of Gloucester, Masschuesetts. But all the high school senior can think about is singing, something that is becoming more a part of her as she eclipses the teenage wasteland benchmark of 17 years of age. There’s just one problem: Ruby’s family; her mother, father, and brother; are deaf and rely on her to communicate with hearing people in their work. She loves both things dearly but crossroads only allow you to choose one path.

Why everyone should see ‘CODA’, a heartwarming (and often hilarious) film that marches to its own beat. Movies like this don’t come around often. Sian Heder’s film hits differently, marching to its own beat. You shouldn’t overlook this film.

Movies like this don’t come around often.

What I loved about Sian Heder’s film, the title of which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, is that it created magic without much effort or showing off. This one marches to its own beat. The best kind of movies don’t need CGI or visual dazzle to lure you in and put both hands around your heart; it’s all in the writing, acting… the storytelling that connects a stranger in an audience to a story that should affect and hit every soul as hard as a rock.

It’s not just another coming-of-age tale that Hollywood drops into our lap at least once a month; “CODA” is the kind of feel-good movie that earns its grace and warmth by caring about its characters and world just as much as it wishes to be the most popular movie.

According to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, no movie was more golden. Heder’s film was the first film to ever win all four of its biggest awards-including the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize-and it’s no secret why. The acting, story, direction, and timeliness of the plot all mix together so well, a cohesive cinematic force that should be unstoppable this fall/winter awards season. A movie that makes an impact all due to the people involved and the way they decide to tell this heartwarming-yet-true story.

But it’s that focus and care shown to the experience of being deaf and all its limitations by Heder, who also wrote one of the year’s best scripts here, that pushes “CODA” into another area of expertise and intrigue. Her movie has personality and wit, along with the ingenious ability to NOT present the Rossi family as a wholesome, perfect family.

Sian Heder’s film hits differently, marching to its own beat.

The pleasure here lies in the eccentricity yet relatable details one will find in the Rossi household, such as Ruby’s parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) inability to be quiet about their sex life. One of the best and funniest moments in the movie happens when Frank playfully instructs Ruby’s boyfriend (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) how to properly wear a condom. Or when Ruby has to explain, or translate, to a doctor what exactly is wrong with her mom and dad’s private regions. Where most movies would gloss over or perform something that is uncomfortable, Heder’s film sits down and spends time in that area, garnering laughs and truth.

Because after all, life isn’t exactly comfortable, is it? It’s finding the unexpected in the lack of comfort. That’s what “CODA” does so well, especially during a family dinner where Ruby wants to know why her brother’s Tinder page is better table fodder than her singing. “Tinder is something we can do as a family.” If every parent doesn’t scream out loud laughing, you need more French fries in your life or something.

Instead of running from unconventional methods of telling an end of innocence story that happens to revolve around a deaf family, Heder leans into the idea of actually getting to know the Rossis and not making them mere types. That’s the MAGIC in this movie, which breezes along at just under 110 minutes.

If you don’t know who many of the cast members are, don’t worry. I didn’t either, outside of a couple faces. You can get to know them through their roles here. Along with a beautiful voice and a ferocity that doesn’t force its way into our minds, Jones is a real talent. And she can sing with the best of them too. Matlin evokes grace and blunt mothership with ease as a woman desperately trying to resist change. Durant isn’t just the annoying brother here, which opens the actor up to create not just the older sibling who wants more responsibility, but someone who feels inferior to his sister. That dynamic isn’t wasted here, but filled in with good writing.

You shouldn’t overlook this film.

Kotsur is a revelation, producing emotions and hilarity out of the smallest gestures or reactions. An old lion who is tired of playing the same old fisherman game, he sees Ruby leaving for music in college as an end to his means, even if he knows how much pressure sits on his daughter’s shoulders. It’s a moving piece of work from the veteran actor, one you probably didn’t notice before, but will have a hard time missing in the future.

Eugenio Derbez, the star of a painfully underseen yet very sharp 2017 comedy, “How to be a Latin Lover,” nearly steals the show as Ruby’s compassionate yet strict and outside-the-box-thinking music teacher. Playing the person at the other end of the sword demanding her to follow her dreams because he knows how a singing career can go, Derbez gives the role something extra–but again, without trying too hard to show it.

Instead of the same beats and pitstops, this battle of wills between teacher and student finds its momentum and personality on its own terms instead of cinema’s past filling in the blanks. Heder gives him all the tools to give the kind of performance that reminds moviegoers that the teacher role can hold the most juice in this genre.

It’s a connective film in the best way; a piece of art finding a different route to the heart.

But it’s the script that steals the show here. It’s so natural, honest, and heartwarming all at once. If you know the movies, you know those three things don’t share a bed in most scripts. Heder really knocked this out of the park, taking an unknown-yet highly entertaining and evocative-route to telling Ruby’s story. Without beating us over the head with that same old, thankless message of chasing your dreams, the writer-director makes all those themes fresh and transcendent again.

Change is a part of all our lives, sometimes more so for certain people early on in their lives, ones like Ruby. She loves her family and her voice, but her future can only have one star. A teenager who never got to be a kid herself for long enough, “CODA” reminds her and us that there’s plenty of time and empathy out there.

It’s a connective film in the best way; a piece of art finding a different route to the heart. It’s not what you would expect. It’s dirtier and more real than you will imagine. I can’t wait to watch “CODA” again, but this time with my family. That doesn’t happen often in my line of work, just so you know.

Cheers to Leder’s creation: A truly great movie that everyone should see.

Source: IMDB, Observer, and Apple Plus.

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