There’s something to be said about the right mix of formula and execution.
Generally speaking, engaging in formulaic filmmaking is a risky business. One runs the risk of boring one’s audience, leaving them with little to enjoy about your film. Nothing breeds contempt, after all, quite like familiarity. And what can be worse than watching a film whose beats you already know by heart?
And yet, even in the most formula laden works, there exists the narrowest of windows through which talented writers and filmmakers might be able to squeeze. A window that allows audiences to overcome their resistance to the familiar and be charmed by the ride. Which is precisely the window writer/director Sian Heder squeezed through with CODA.
On the surface, CODA—an acronym for “children of deaf adults”—is a story you’ve seen any number of times. It involves a young girl, Ruby (Emilia Jones), who longs for a life beyond the working class existence of her parents, Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). She has dreams of going to Berklee and becoming a singer, dreams that hindered by her parents’ need for her to stay and help with the family fishing business. She is caught between the worlds of dreams and expectations. How can she choose?
I almost fell asleep just writing that description, and yet the charms of CODA are such that no description can do it justice. Yes, it’s a familiar set up that plays out in familiar ways, but Heder brings such a perfect execution to the formula that it’s impossible to deny how well the formula works. There are, after all, usually reasons why formulas become formulas in the first place.
As the title indicates, the twist on the formula is that Ruby is a child of deaf adults. Much of the film’s charm comes from Heder’s exploration of this reality. Unlike her parents and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), Ruby is not deaf. This brings an added weight to her struggle to exist in two worlds. Her parents rely on her to be their translators, to help them exist in a world and amidst people who would rather not have to deal with them. Whether its doctors or other fishermen or even the coast guard, Ruby is used as the go between, adding more weight to Ruby’s struggle between her dreams and the expectations of her family.
Blessedly, Heder doesn’t treat Jackie, Frank, and Leo’s deafness as the obstacle in and of itself. Ruby, naturally, is fluent in ASL and has no problem communicating with her family or her friends, and any embarrassment Ruby feels about her family is the typical embarrassment any teenager feels about their family. This allows the film to explore the realities of both Ruby and her parents, realities shared by families across the country and around the globe, without pretense or melodrama.
By allowing these characters to exist as they do in reality, Heder is able to bring the innate charms of the formula to refreshing life. Of course it helps that Jones, Matlin, Kotsur, and Durant are all wonderful actors and that all, besides Jones, are in the deaf community. They’re also propped up by an amazing supporting performance from Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s choir teacher.
It all adds up to a feel good film with a lot of heart and so much soul. True, you know the broadstrokes of the narrative before you even watch it, but it’s so earnest in its conviction and real in its portrayal that it’s easy to overlook the familiarity of the story and just let the charms work their magic. As heartwarming as it is heartfelt, CODA is the feel good film of the year.
CODA is now available on AppleTV+