(SPOILERS) Were CODA simply a tale of a young woman trying to break free from the shackles of her family in order to live her own life, would it have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar? Rather than the same but featuring the differently abled? You might as well ask if Marlee Matlin, who co-stars here, would have won the Best Actress Oscar for Children of a Lesser God were it not for similar considerations. Hollywood loves to announce itself as progressive and socially aware. It’s how it sleeps at night amid all that wealth. The only difference between yesteryear and the current environment is the size of the cart leading the horse, and how much it crowds out the rest of the field.
CODA is actually one of the more enjoyable of the Best Picture Oscar nominees, but that still doesn’t mean it ought to be vying for attention as one of the year’s best (and if there aren’t any truly deserving in a given calendar? Well, call the whole thing off, anathema as that may be, rather than look a bit silly – to those who aren’t ignoring the entire thing anyway, which appears to be most in the last few years).
In contrast to the movie’s nomination, I’d suggest Emilia Jones’ performance – where she has to sing, sign and perfect an American accent – is really CODA’s be all and end, and much more venerable than the merely adequate movie it supports. Jones has been nominated for a BAFTA, but she’d also have been given a nod over the likes of “Love that Joker” Nicole Kidman’s plastic-not-so-fantastic Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos, had the Academy any standards.
Writer-director Sian Heder has remade 2014’s La Famille Bélier, transposing the storyline to Gloucester, Massachusetts and replacing the family farm with a fishing business. Child of deaf adults Ruby (Jones) is relied upon by dad Frank (Troy Kotsur), mum Jackie (Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) when it comes to communicating with the outside world, specifically as it relates to all things fishing. But when Ruby joins the school choir, ostensibly because she fancies classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and is copying him, the choir director Mr Villalobos (Mr V, Eugenio Derbez) realises she has a real talent and presses her to audition for Berklee College of Music. Inevitably, the duelling demands of family and calling weigh heavily on our protagonist.
Trying to break away from the ties of home and family are evergreens, particularly when such aspirations are doomed (Billy Liar, Steptoe and Son). But CODA posits an essentially upbeat tale, one where everyone can make hay, if only they apply themselves with positive thinking and action. Heder is undoubtedly guilty of operating in broad strokes – perhaps the French influence – such that Ruby’s family’s predilection for farting, fornicating and generally more indelicate obsessions contrast with her sensitive and artier tastes. Accordingly – and again, this comes from the original movie – it’s perhaps rather on the nose that Ruby should alight upon singing as her vocation. So much so, it would be reasonable to assume mum’s line about her taking up finger painting, were she blind rather than deaf, feels like an attempt to head off such objections at the pass.
Generally, though, such content here is germane, as opposed to the pseudy-swathing of Drive My Car. A working-class milieu is a boon in that regard, offsetting the more fanciful elements. It must be stressed, though, that enjoyable as Derbez’ performance is, the singing sessions are where the picture is at its patchiest. Mr V is repeatedly required to coax forth Ruby’s true range via various breathing and performative exercises; these instantaneously reveal her full potential. The beats missed here are voluble; it’s evident their relationship and her path to prowess needed that extra bit of nurturing, Educating Rita style; Heder isn’t yet a strong enough director to make Ruby’s breakthrough moments feel earned or palpable.
Consequently, the liberal use of the montage is the fall back of any movie or director struggling to hook the viewer, and CODA most notably employs The Clash (I Fought the Law) among several such episodes. Ruby’s audition piece meanwhile, both sung and signed (to her family, snuck in on the balcony) is Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell. You know Joni? That remarkable flag bearer for freedoms and seeing all points of view, as long as they’re in line with establishment groupthink.
Matlin is very good as the earthy mother (and again, more noteworthy than most of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees). She’s certainly more deserving of awards attention than Troy Kostur’s solid but unremarkable dad (whose most noteworthy quality is a resemblance to a more hirsute Jim Varney). But perhaps the more potent performance among Ruby’s family comes from Durant as Ruby’s frustrated sibling.
Amy Forsyth is also strong as fecund friend Gertie, keen to impress herself on Leo such that she learns to sign her intentions to him (“She just told me she has herpes”). Walsh-Peelo is a bit chinless, though, such that we’re left thinking Ruby really should run off with a cello player who wears a fedora once she gets to Berkley.
As noted, this is Jones’ movie, and I don’t believe it would have made the modest waves it has without her. She earns empathy for Ruby’s every dilemma throughout. And if Kotsur looks a little like Varney, Jones could surely play Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s younger sister (and then doubtless be cradle-snatched by Ewan McGregor, who would then be summarily beaten up by Emilia’s livid, former air-walking dad Aled Jones).
CODA, in a line-up of little-seen Best Picture Oscar nominees – outside of Dune and Don’t Look Up – is probably the least viewed of the lot. That’s chiefly owing to its presence on AppleTV+, a streamer that has everything going for it (you know, such as very visible branding). Everything except content, that is. It’s seen a late-in-the-game surge as a potential winner following its SAG awards showing, but whether that translates to anything on the big night is debatable (it has only three nominations to its name). Regardless, there are much less worthy pictures currently in significantly higher contention for the top prize.