I've always been a sucker for "coming-of-age" movies, but "Coda" is a fresh and endlessly compelling entry into the genre, made great by the performance of 19-year-old Emilia Jones (Kinsley from Netflix's "Locke & Key").This isn't the first film Jones has appeared in, but it is destined to be a game-changing one for her promising, budding career.
"Coda" killed earlier this year at Sundance, and now we know why: It's simply one of the best films of 2021, living up to all of the hype.
Taking place in Gloucester, Massachusetts - just outside of Boston - the Rossi family works hard to make a living. The father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), his son, Leo (Daniel Durant) and teenage daughter Ruby (Jones) go out early every morning to haul in as many fish as they can, returning to shore to sell their day's catch. The price per fish has been dropping lately, forcing them to work harder for less than they're used to.
There is one thing that sets the Rossis apart from other fish boat crews in town: Ruby is what is known as a "CODA" (Child of Deaf Parents). Frank and his son Leo are both deaf, as is Ruby's disapproving mother, Jackie (the wonderful Marlee Matlin). Ruby was the only one of them born with hearing, so she acts as the family's interpreter...they rely so heavily on Ruby that the pressure on her is more than she can bear.
Ruby is an incredibly gifted singer...a curse of sorts, in that her family cannot possibly relate with her passion, nor do they fully believe in the idea that she is any good at it. After joining her school choir group, her teacher, Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), hears something special in her voice and convinces her to train to audition for a spot at the highly-regarded Berkeley School of Music. He sets her in a duet with Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, from "Sing Street") and their relationship blossoms awkwardly, as it tends to at that age.
"Coda" deals with several clichés, but they're deftly handled and presented by writer/director Sian Heder ("Tallulah"). You won't mind, for example, that the music teacher is a bit over-the-top, even though he pretty much represents the stereotype of many other music teachers you've seen before. His character is so rich and his chemistry with Ruby is so real, that he transcends the tropes.
All of the characters - and the performances - is really what sets "Coda" apart. It's been 34 years since Marlee Matlin won her Best Actress Oscar for 1987's "Children of a Lesser God," and she has not really had such an opportunity to shine since. She is terrific, as is her counterpart in the film, Troy Kotsur, another actor who was born deaf. What a string of impassioned roles for the hearing-impaired...following last year's Oscar-nominated Paul Raci in "Sound of Metal," Kotsur could very well follow-up with a nomination himself...his tender scenes with Emilia Jones represent the heartbeat of the film and are some of the most touching you'll see this year.
Not only does Emilia Jones deserve all the praise that will be coming her way, the film also depicts a deaf family like few films ever have. Mom and Dad are deeply in love and can't keep their hands off of each other, even upon doctor's orders (and they're sex is so loud because, well, they can't tell the difference). Ruby's relationship with her parents and her brother feels authentic...here is a girl with dreams who feels torn between the obligations that her family have put on her and paving her own way forward. Being caught in the middle nearly causes both sides of her life to crumble, and just like any "coming-of-age" drama, we watch and sympathize with the trials and tribulations of being young again, as Ruby struggles to figure out her own life.
And while it's a drama, "Coda" is often laugh-out-loud funny. It's also the sort of disarming film that sneaks up on you as it goes along. As Ruby's choir concert approaches, her family tries desperately to support her, and there is a tear-inducing scene where we get to listen from the perspective of the parents as to what their experience is like while Ruby performs on stage. It's heart-breaking and meaningful all at once.
The famous duet by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell - "You're All I Need To Get By" - plays a big part in the movie, and really is the theme of the film: Despite our differences, or what some may deem as a "handicap," we all rely on one another to get by. Sometimes the best thing you can do to help someone you cherish is to actually better yourself - and if someone truly loves you - this might inspire them in turn to improve their own life.
"Coda" is a great reminder that even when a movie seems to tread on familiar ground, if done well, it can still achieve greatness.
Genre: Drama, Music.
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes.
Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, John Fiore, Lonnie Farmer.
Written and Directed by Sian Heder ("Tallulah").
"Coda" is on Apple TV+ on Friday, August 13th, 2021 and in theaters locally in Detroit on Friday, August 20th, 2021.
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