Review: CODA

After reading the synopsis for the American film CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) but prior to seeing it, I felt as if I’d seen this movie before, and, as a matter of fact, it is based on a 2015 French film called La famille Belier. However, when I looked through my files and then online to check out my suspicions I realized I hadn’t seen the original (which, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem to have received distribution in Japan or, for that matter, in any English-speaking countries). Nevertheless, the  high concept hook of the story—the only hearing member of a family of deaf people decides to pursue her love of singing—seems so readymade for a certain species of domestic drama that I’m sure variations on the theme are rampant. It’s the way the international movie industry works.

The American film takes place in Gloucester, a fishing town on the Massachusetts coast. Our hero, Ruby (Emilia Jones), works with her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant), on the family’s fishing boat. Ruby is the only member who can hear and speak, and thus is stuck with the job of interpreting for her family with the world of the hearing. She has a rough time of it, mainly because her parents have fully manifested the kind of Yankee bullheadedness ascendant in this part of the country, and they not only make great demands on the buyers and distributors they deal with, but have developed a kind of passe working-class attitude that embarrasses Ruby. (Farting and having loud sex are the questionable shorthand the film uses to convey this particular predicament.) For the most part, the familial relationships depicted have a natural appeal that the writer-director, Sian Heder, handles with care and imagination, but the movie is about much more; perhaps too much more.

Ruby loves to sing, and in early scenes on the boat we hear her humming and giving full voice to some familiar R&B lines, which her family can’t hear. So when she decides to join the high school chorus club as an extracurricular activity, her mother looks at her askance: Are you doing this just because your parents are deaf? It’s not an unreasonable question, and one the viewer has likely already asked themself. More problematic is how Ruby proves herself to not only be up to the challenge, but on top of it. At first, her self-consciousness gets in the way, but then the feisty, arrogantly confident, Motown-obsessed choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez), sensing something “unique,” essentially bullies Ruby into revealing her native talents, which the viewer may or may not buy since there is no prior indication that she’s had any musical or vocal training at all. 

The rest of the movie writes itself, and by stressing Ruby’s musical triumphs—a public performance in which she shines, an audition for the Berklee School of Music—over her conflicts with her family, which need her to participate in their troubled business, the movie produces a conflict that is so automatic it could have been concocted by AI. Nevertheless, the family scenes maintain a healthy naturalism even in their sentimentality, thanks mainly to Kotsur, whose expressive range is formidable. Frank is by far the film’s most complicated character, a proud man who knows his deafness makes him a mark but is determined not to be taken advantage of. This pugnaciousness extends to his role as paterfamilias, and Heder has the good judgment to led him carry the movie, or, at least, carry it during those scenes where he’s on screen. The rest, which dabbles in first-love cliches and the inevitable heartbreak of leaving one’s home, is pretty trite.

In English and ASL. Opens Jan. 21 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060).

CODA home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Vendome Pictures LLC, Pathe Films

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