Monday, April 18, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: CODA (2021)

It's been a while but welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today I'll be talking about a film that just became the 94th to win the Best Picture Oscar, CODA.  Sian Heder's heartwarming family dramedy concerns a high school senior named Ruby Rossi (played by prodigious English actor/musician Emilia Jones), born of a deaf family working in the Gloucester, MA fishing industry.  Despite being the youngest member of her family, her parents and older brother depend on Ruby to help run the business and navigate its political and regulatory ins and outs, as part of the local union.  Specifically fishing boat fees are becoming prohibitively expensive and everyone is struggling just to break even, and finally Ruby's father Frank (a superb Troy Kotsur in an Oscar-winning performance) decides to start his own independent company.  Ruby becomes more integral to the family business than ever as she's asked to promote the new venture and get other anglers on board.  

The problem though, is that fishing isn't Ruby's passion, music is.  Turns out Ruby is a helluva singer, and her high school music teacher takes an interest in helping develop her natural ability, grooming her for a scholarship audition at Berklee College of Music.  Torn between loyalty to her family and a chance to break out of Gloucester and do what she loves, Ruby finds herself at odds with her mother (an excellent Marlee Matlin), who's scared to let Ruby go both for personal and business reasons and who doesn't understand Ruby's passion for music, having never heard it.  But Ruby's brother Leo resents that the family is so dependent on her and feels overlooked and unappreciated for his contributions, telling Ruby that her passing up the chance to leave would be a slap in the face to people like him. 
CODA's story beats are very familiar - the child who wants to leave her upbringing, the parent who's desperate to keep her there, the peer who tells her she owes it to him to take the shot, the brutally honest teacher/mentor who wants to push her to fulfill her potential, etc.  But Sian Heder's script (based on the 2014 French film La Famille Belier) adds the wrinkle of Ruby's isolation as the only hearing member of her family, which brings new life to these ideas.  The conflict with her mother is fundamentally almost irresolvable, since her mother can never truly know what it feels like to be touched by music.  Leo's gripe is also compelling; he's the elder child and yet he feels he's being treated like a baby because his younger sister has an ability he does not.  Meanwhile Ruby's father is torn between wanting what he knows is best for her and not wanting his business ruined; he's the first member of her family to make the effort to really understand her love for music.

The intra-family conflicts are the strongest aspect of the script, while I'd say the teacher-student felt a little too Mr. Holland's Opus - Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is the typical gruff mentor with the heart of gold, who only agrees to help Ruby if she commits fully.  It also rang a bit untrue for me (being a Berklee alum) that the school would give such an inexperienced applicant a free ride, her unique situation notwithstanding.  It was fun to see my old stomping grounds in a feature film though.

Overall, CODA is a quite engaging, uplifting film with clearly drawn characters, a new twist on familiar tropes, a sharp sense of humor, and wholly believable performances all around.  It wouldn't have been my choice for Best Picture but it's a very fine movie.

I give CODA ***1/2 out of ****.

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