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'CODA' Is An Unabashedly Formulaic And Lovely Coming-Of-Age Story


This is FRESH AIR. The independent drama "CODA" was the runaway hit of this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, where it won four awards in the American dramatic competition. Now it's playing in theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+. "CODA" tells the story of a teenage child of deaf parents, one of whom is played by Marlee Matlin, more than three decades after her Oscar win for "Children Of A Lesser God." Our film critic Justin Chang has this review of "CODA."

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of the new movie "CODA" is an acronym for child of deaf adults. Here it refers to a teenager named Ruby, played by a terrific Emilia Jones, who's the only hearing member of her close-knit family. They run a scrappy fishing business in Gloucester, Mass., and Ruby spends a lot of time helping out, joining the family on the water every morning before school and serving as their interpreter. Ruby is also a talented singer and wants to attend music school in Boston, but she worries that her family might not be able to get by without her and that they'll never understand her love for music. That's a pretty pat irony, but the writer-director Sian Heder seems well aware of it.

"CODA" is an unabashedly formulaic coming-of-age story. But it uses that formula to show us characters and experiences we seldom see in movies. It's also proved unexpectedly divisive - rapturously received by many at Sundance for its sweet, heartfelt emotion, it's also been dismissed by others as bland and sentimental. It's been praised for putting a spotlight on deaf characters, but also criticized for putting a hearing character front and center. Not to be too equivocal about it, but I think there's an element of truth to all these arguments. "CODA" strikes me as both clumsy and lovely. And while I winced at it's contrivances, I was also undeniably moved by it in ways that caught me off guard. Much of that is due to the actors.

Notably, the deaf characters are all played by deaf performers thanks to the behind-the-scenes efforts of the movie's best known actor, Marlee Matlin. She plays Ruby's mom, Jackie, while Troy Kotsur plays her dad, Frank. They're an endearingly rough around the edges duo with a coarse sense of humor that the movie exaggerates for comic effect. Ruby is often embarrassed by their behavior at home and in public. But it's partly their way of showing how unconcerned they are with what others, especially hearing people, think of them.

Ruby's older brother, Leo, played by Daniel Durant, is just as defiant. He hates the ways he and his parents are marginalized for being deaf. And he often resents his younger sister for being their trusted go-between - St. Ruby, as he calls her. Ruby is pretty tired of it herself, especially when life starts presenting other possibilities. She begins singing at school and thrives under a teacher who encourages her to apply to Berklee College of Music. And this being a coming-of-age story, there, of course, has to be a romance with a nice boy and her music class, whom Ruby pairs up with at one point for a duet of "You're All I Need To Get By."


EMILIA JONES: (As Ruby, singing) Like the sweet morning dew, I took one look at you and it was plain to see, you were my destiny. With my arms opened wide, I threw away my pride. I'll sacrifice for you, dedicate my life to you. I will go where you lead, always there in time of need.

EMILIA JONES AND FERDIA WALSH-PEELO: (As Ruby and Miles, singing) And when I lose my will, you'll be there to push me up the hill. There's no - no looking back for us. We got love - sure enough, that's enough. You're all - all that I need, all that I need...

JONES: (As Ruby, singing) All that I need to get by

CHANG: It might surprise some viewers to learn that "CODA" is an American remake of a 2014 French film called "La Famille Belier" since its richly textured portrait of a New England fishing community is one of the best things about it. The scenes of the family communicating at home are also a pleasure, even when the arguments get overheated. It's clear how close Ruby is to her parents and brother. But you also sense the gap that's opened up between them, aggravated by uncertainty about money and the family's future. The emotional dynamics between hearing and deaf family members are full of rich, dramatic possibilities. And "CODA," like any movie staking out new representational ground, shouldn't be expected to cover them all. Still, I couldn't help but wonder about some of its choices. The degree to which Ruby's family depends on her sometimes strains credulity, so does the suggestion that deaf people couldn't appreciate music or understand someone else's love for it.

But if the tensions between Ruby and her family aren't always believable, there's great poignancy in the way Heder resolves those tensions. The final act of "CODA" is full of beats you'd expect, a touching concert, a suspenseful audition. But the one that sticks with you is a simple exchange in which Ruby and her father, played by Kotsur with a rough, curmudgeonly grace, come to a new understanding. It's a perfect tear-jerker of a scene, wholly calculated and wholly effective. "CODA" may strike its share of false notes. But a note that sweet is really all it needs.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "CODA." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about a dark side of the Navy SEALs. Our guest will be David Philips, whose new book is about Eddie Gallagher, the SEAL who led his platoon in driving ISIS out of Mosul, was later tried for war crimes and granted clemency by President Trump. It's also about the SEALs who turned Gallagher in. Philips covers the military for The New York Times. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. My thanks to Dave Davies for hosting last week while I was on vacation. I'm Terry Gross.


Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.