8/10 CODA is the archetypical coming-of-age story done properly, with an earnest, complex mix of emotions. There’s a well of authenticity here that’s usually absent from the genre and brings out the best it has to offer.
Gloucester, Massachusetts- Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), entering her senior year at Gloucester High School, is the only hearing member of her blue-collar fishing family. She harbors a passion for singing, which her deaf parents and older brother, Frank, Jackie and Leo (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant) don’t appreciate. When choir director Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) starts coaching her to try out for Berklee College of Music in Boston, her competing interests in herself, helping her family and boys threaten to tear her life apart.
Just about everyone onscreen feels some kind of way about Rossi turning 18, an expansive look at the chaos of realizing a 17-year-old who is already ingrained in her community won’t be around much longer – but at the same time, she isn’t the center of the world, and most of the anxiety is for what will survive her leaving it behind. It becomes a kind of death looming over everything around her. It’s a very honest film that doesn’t romanticize this phase of life or shy away from the uglier emotions it can wring out, particularly Jackie Rossi’s jealousy and fear that her hearing daughter will never return to their deaf world.
It’s also an incredibly horny film that doesn’t shy away from either the teenage obsession with sex or Frank and Jackie Rossi’s sex life – Frank worships his wife, and it is the present and urgent love at the core of the Rossi family, not Ruby herself, that drives much of the plot.
CODA uses its characters’ deafness gracefully, thoughtfully and thoroughly. Instead of having quirky, embarrassing parents, Ruby Rossi has deaf parents, and a straightforward portrayal of disability serves the narrative purpose of alienating the lead character better and more earnestly than any kind of scripted wackiness ever could. It also stays with the film – deafness isn’t a throwaway quirk that can be dropped once the lead character escapes the story’s known world, it’s a disability the Rossis must carry with them.
ASL is used magnificently, and the story takes it straight to the place where other second languages could never go. In an immigrant story, Spanish or Italian would carry the weight and joy of an entire culture, along with the opportunity to learn and fully participate in English-speaking America, something the Rossis will never be able to do. The permanence of their separation from the hearing world completely changes the dynamic. The film, which is being screened in theaters – once it finally got to theaters – with subtitles as standard, shifts from spoken English to ASL in moments that might be seamless but for the sound of dialogue dropping out. The rest of the movie’s soundscape leaves room for dialogue that has become silent. Ruby Rossi punctuates lines where she breaks from her parents by speaking her signs out loud. The subtitles drop out to let you know when Frank Rossi stops using actual signs and starts using charades to try to communicate with hearing people, a transition that is fully seamless – and hilarious.
It’s not my place to say whether or not CODA is representative or not – it looks like actual children of deaf adults don’t like the perspective of some scenes, which is understandable.
Much like The Power of the Dog and Drive My Car, CODA morphs into a movie primarily about performance, but more in the day-to-day sense of the term. Ruby Rossi, for whom spoken English is a second language, remains anxious about speaking it naturally and fitting into the hearing world. As pressure mounts on her, the drama mainly expresses itself through her in-story musical performances and her strained ability to prepare for them.
It’s easy to see why the Academy went for this. It’s the kind of feel-good story that usually gets undue praise, but with an emotional depth and complexity that is rare, and there’s also a significant punch of Americana – the arguable B plot is Frank Rossi marshalling the fishermen of Gloucester to organize and get around a middle man who’s been taking advantage of them. This quick encapsulation of a systemic blue collar struggle, tying CODA to an expansive, real world, is gives the film even greater dimension and appeal.
CODA is the least-seen Best Picture winner of all time by a humiliating margin. Apple bought it for a record $25 million at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and then only put it in theaters “in select countries” – best I can tell, Mexico was the only country where this played, and it had made $1.05 million at the worldwide box office when it won the gold. According to third-party data, it had been streamed less than 1 million times. I end up having not seen the Best Picture winner with surprising frequency, but CODA is different. This was never anywhere near me. I never had the opportunity to see this.
There’s a perception that the Academy leans into obscure arthouse movies, but the examples you’d point to blow CODA straight out of the water. Quickly forgotten Best Picture winners like Green Book and The Artist were already at $69.6 million and $31.8 million, respectively, when they were awarded. Slumdog Millionaire could be the flashpoint example, since it took the Oscar away from The Dark Knight, but that was a huge hit, already well past $100 million by the time it won. This stereotype is actually quite young, also – once you get back into the 20th century, most every Best Picture winner saw significant box office success.
It’s completely fine that The Academy’s judgment is questionable, but it’s an alarming new development that the movie they all sat down and decided was their best of 2021 was a movie they had previously decided to allow Apple to not put in theaters.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.