Using an example group of one, one can be grateful for the existence and especially the actors in “CODA” (streaming on Apple TV + Friday) and still be frustrated by the gentle, shameless storytelling.
Good news first, and there’s a lot of that. Screenwriter and director Sian Heder cast her easy-going remake of the French hit “La Famille Belier” from 2014 with an excellent cast. Emilia Jones shines as Ruby, the 17-year-old hearing daughter of deaf parents. The family members are working class insider / outsider figures in the beleaguered fishing community of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Ruby’s father (Troy Kotsur) and Ruby’s older brother (Daniel Durant) barely get past and are marginalized by the rest of the fisherman. Her cheeky mom-to-be free spirit, played by Children of a Lesser God Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, regularly annoys Ruby, who spends her high school years trying to stay as invisible as possible.
The conflicts are numerous and completely resolved, never my preference in any kind of drama. Ruby, who we hear walking into town in the first few seconds of Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” likes a certain shy cute boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who takes over the choir. So Ruby is initially deeply inhibited, although the passionate instructor (Eugenio Derbez, apparently straight from a marathon viewing session of “Mr. Holland’s Opus”, “Lean On Me” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus”) spies on the miracle Develop.
Ruby must find a way to make her dream come true by going to Berklee College of Music in Boston if she can live with the guilt of saving herself from her family’s efforts to start a fishing cooperative. She has navigated two worlds all her life. “CODA” finds a practicable American setting to adapt the story from the French version. (In this, the family members were farmers and cheese makers.)
Heder’s second feature film after her debut “Tallulah” moves crisply without a narrative hair out of place. For once, the deaf community we see on screen isn’t being patronized or sidelined, even if the scenes between hearing characters like Ruby and her sexually driven best friend (Amy Forsyth) take the lead for a while. Jones – a Londoner who adopted both a US dialect and American sign language for the role – brings out the people in the protagonists, even if the script feels more like bullet points in search of elaboration.
What is missing are unexpected beats, some rougher edges, a few non-story moments that bring us closer to the way these characters live, breathe and feel. The comedy sounds like comedy writing, middle class at best. And is “CODA” with two triumphant musical highlights, to be honest, better off?
None of these questions take away the satisfaction of watching actors do their thing so skillfully. I remember seeing the deeply expressive Kotsur play Stanley Kowalski in a lively Deaf West stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire in Los Angeles 21 years ago and I thought: Will the film and television world ever catch up and promote such talent? ? A generation later, the answer is: now and then. Perhaps.
In the 2021 virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival, “CODA” won both the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize and two others. Apple TV + paid a record $ 25 million for the film earlier this year. All in all, despite his weakness, it’s worth choosing songs for Ruby that reflect exactly what she’s hiding inside. Again, this is a sample group of one, but: sometimes the hearts of the audience react more honestly to what is happening on the screen when the tactics are not quite as obvious.
2.5 stars (of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for strong sexual content and language, and drug use)
Where to see: Premiere on Friday in limited theatrical version and streaming on Apple TV +.
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