It’s meant, too obviously, as a feel-good movie. But Best Picture Oscar nominee “CODA,” which plays for free in select theaters this weekend (and is already streaming on Apple TV+), had the opposite effect on me. The film, written and directed by Sian Heder, is based on the 2014 French film “La famille Bélier”; it’s the story of the Rossis, a third-generation fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It centers on one of the Rossi children, Ruby (Emilia Jones), a seventeen-year-old high school student whose parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), are deaf, as is her older brother, Leo. . (Daniel Durant). Ruby is a hearing person but fluent in American Sign Language and her life revolves around the family business. She goes out each morning on the boat with Leo and their father, and, back on land, negotiates the sale of their catch to a wholesaler who they are convinced is taking advantage of them as deaf (and Ruby as a child) . The drama involves Ruby’s efforts to develop her own life, to break up with her family without breaking up with herself – even as she recognizes that her independent pursuits and prolonged absence may threaten her family’s livelihood. It is not a spoiler, alas, to know that all is well in the end for all concerned. The story cards all give aces, as you would expect from the moment they are dealt.
It’s a kind of achievement – a display of skill that’s also a kind of trickery – to establish a level of predictability that both guarantees payoff and keeps the suspense low. Drama depends on maintaining a viewer’s rooting interest while keeping them safe from the real possibility of loss. It’s not just the film’s bright, cheerful tone that propels its characters safely into a risky world, but also the contours of the drama itself, the kinds of events that are shown and those that aren’t, which traits are defined (with the movie equivalent of Day-Glo highlighters) and which are overlooked. When Ruby is first seen on the boat, she’s singing along to an Etta James record, and guess what: Ruby’s outing involves singing. In the hallway of her school, next to her locker, she stares at a boy she finds cute; in the next scene, the students sign up for extracurricular activities, and this boy, Miles Patterson (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), chooses the choir, so Ruby impulsively signs up for it as well. Music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), aka Mr. V., quickly discerns Ruby’s shapeless talent and chooses her for the band’s star duet – with Miles. The professor also encourages her to apply to her alma mater, Berklee College of Music, in Boston, but the private study he offers to prepare her for her audition conflicts with her family obligations on the dock. Still, guess what: Leo, too, is eager to exert some control over the family business without relying on Ruby’s help.
The practical range of plot detail extends beyond the foreground action into its psychological grounding and real-world implications. Can’t afford college? There are scholarships. Ruby being bullied? Suck it up, use it, and move on. The wholesaler takes advantage of the Rossis? They found their own cooperative. Are the other anglers ignoring or laughing at Frank and Leo for being deaf? See what happens when the Rossis bring them money. “CODA” is a tale of the boundless generosity of self-help. The film’s main villains are “the feds,” federal marine inspectors who intrusively tax the entire fleet of fishing boats and lay charges against the Rossis for not having a hearing person on the ship. It is a cinematic and libertarian fairy tale, a genre that is hardly new: Clint Eastwood does not skimp on his caricature of the bureaucratic order, and will do so even in defiance of the history he is filming, as in Sully. But “CODA” doesn’t allude to the tragic sense of responsibility with which Eastwood matches his worldview, or the symbolic imagination with which he evokes it.
The story of rewarded work is also that of rewarded virtue, and its protagonists are defined only by their virtues, of an openly calculated and strangely old-fashioned genre. Frank and Jackie have an openly horny marriage (their raucous afternoon sex turns into an absurd plot point), and the family happily talks dirty in ASL; while Ruby, disdaining the sexual freedom of her best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), practically proclaims her chastity. The discussions never go beyond the immediate practical aspects of the family business (and, as for these practical aspects, there are very few of them). Ruby’s lovable void is a template for adult viewers to fill with their own projections of what constitutes a good kid. Other than their close family ties and tightly defined social ties, the Rossis remain undefined. There is neither politics, nor religion, nor culture, and the action takes place away from ideas, points of view, reflections on life; its progress passes by the awareness of the feeling, and its conflict resolution passes mainly by the elision of any potential reason for conflict.
On the other hand, the film itself displays a genuine and significant merit, which is to offer large and dramatically vigorous roles to three extraordinarily talented deaf actors, and their performances give the film a semblance of vitality and presence which exceeds the limits. of the scenario. What their performances reveal is the poverty of commercial cinema in general (and, truth be told, independent cinema too) in casting deaf actors, actors with disabilities. Yet in “CODA,” the onus falls squarely on those actors to suggest that their characters are anything but ciphers of goodness and honor and have three-dimensional inner lives. (Kotsur’s Best Supporting Actor nomination is well-deserved, both for the quality of his performance and the amount of character building it demands.) Heder directs with an obvious efficiency that puts the scripted events of end to end and leaves out any sense that the characters may exist between those scenes. The direction of the cards, discrete and numbered, which are turned over disturbs the free perception and the free thought of the spectator. The film is a litmus test of the will to be dragged in, start to finish, staring straight ahead while being told there’s nothing to see. The sense of calculation makes the journey feel like walking in step; the film’s sense of a story that is dictated rather than observed makes its good feelings bad.