Starring: Amelia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Pillo, and Amy Forsyth.
Directed By Sean Heder
Where I Watched It: Apple Plus
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: Ruby (Jones) is a CODA, a child of deaf adults. Her older brother (Durant) is also deaf, and her entire life has been shaped by this unique experience growing up in a household as the only hearing individual. Ruby often has to translate for her parents, and spends her free time helping her father (kotsur) with his fishing business. She presumes that this will be the rest of her life, until a music teacher (Derbez) unlocks a hidden dream within her, and now Ruby has to decide to pursue music, or help her family as they fight against a fishing system that is slowly finding ways to make it harder for smaller fishermen to earn a living.
What Works: Well, the fact that this is my second viewing should say something. On Oscar day, i sat down and knocked out my last Best Picture nominee, but also had the time to rewatch what i was hoping would win Best Picture, and introduce someone to this film that hadn’t seen it before. It’s a beautiful and complex film about disability and those close to us who are there for the journey. At what point should Ruby be allowed to pursue her own life, or is she expected to forever be an interpreter for her parents?
And then, for her passion to be music, possibly the most challenging thing to convince a pair of deaf parents that you have a passion for, let alone the talent to pursue such a career, seems in and of itself like an insurmountable task. And for many points in the film, Ruby is consistently pushed against a wall and made to choose, and she frequently chooses her family. Her teacher accuses her of not being committed or taking her music training serious enough, but we as an audience see the behind the scenes family dynamic, where Ruby consistently shows up, and puts in the time. So it’s not that Ruby is profoundly lazy, rather that these two things cannot co-exist.
Amelia Jones does an absolutely spectacular job in this film, which is why I named her my pick for Best Actress last year. Her performance seems to be quickly written off as just another angsty teenager, when she adds so many more layers. Every time we learn more about Ruby, her past, her family, or her dreams, we realize the subtle nuance that Jones has been adding to her work all along.
She enters school each day with a level of trepidation because she was bullied originally for how she spoke, she doesn’t want to sing as a soloist because she’s afraid she can’t sing, and she’s consistently at odds with her mother (Matlin) who isn’t just refusing to entertain her dreams, it’s more that she can’t understand them. As her mother says at one point, ‘If I was blind, would you want to be a painter?”
Coda does so many interesting things with how deaf people experience music, and their daughter. Her father likes rap music for the heavy bass he can feel when he turns the music up loud. When her parents go to see Ruby perform, they look at the reactions of those around them to gauge how incredible she is, as well as noticing how she lights up when allowed to do her own thing. And in the films most touching sequence, her father puts his ear to Ruby’s neck as she sings so he can feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.
Coda works on every level, not just as an Oolive branch of inclusivity, but a highly relatable family dynamic between a girl with a dream and parents who push back against the dream, only to find themselves later choosing for their daughter to be allowed to live her own life apart from them. To give up their “free interpreter”, as Ruby feels like she is many times, and just let her figure out who she is, instead of who she is to this family, is the kind of warm feel good choice that moved Coda into the top position in this year’s race. Instead of picking some limited range artsy achievement project, they lifted up a soon to be modern classic that all families can enjoy.
What Doesn’t Work: This comes from the music side of me, and happens quite frequently. Only certain people would ever get this anyway, but when her music teacher says she needs to prepare a classical piece for the audition, and then that’s the piece she’s working on, that’s not a classical piece, nor would it qualify for any school or university Looking for a true classical piece. Using the word “classical” was unnecessary, and they should have just let her sing a song. It’s an audition for Berklee, which runs extremely contemporary, so the whole thing was pointless.
The Greatest Showman did the same thing by introducing us to Rebecca Ferguson’s real life opera singer, and she takes to the stage to sing some opera, but then she just sang Never Enough, which is as close to Opera as I am to Mars.
The Blind Perspective: Interestingly, this is why sometimes I miss things. Normally, I think I would have just said this audio description was sufficient, except when I watched it with a sighted person, I learned of some of the choices Troy was making, which made it more evident why he was a Best Supporting Actor front runner. That whole thing about putting his ear to her throat to listen? I didn’t get that in the audio description, I got that from the person I was watching Coda with.
So sometimes even my best analysis of an audio description is still inadequate because I don’t know what it is that I’m missing. I will say that heading into Oscar season, having seen Coda, there was nothing given to me in the way of his audio described performance (since his character is 99% non-verbal) that led me to understand why he was ahead in the race. I was missing on the little details, these emotionally impactful moments that likely a visually angled audience noticed about Troy and his performance. I think, in the case of characters who are so major and center to the storyline, there should be more care given to explaining all of their physical choices. If you treat a non-verbal actor the same as a verbal actor, we are bound to be missing aspects of their performance, as any other actor would substitute their voice and dialogue along with their physical choices. But an actor who is aware they can’t make sound, and communicates entirely physically, even the ASL is a physical gesture, we need to capture that, otherwise that character seems very common, or background, despite the evidence to the contrary that what Troy did with his performance was above and beyond.
Final Thoughts: I was on the Coda bandwagon back when it first hit Apple Plus, and I’ve been trying to get people to watch it ever since. I think it’s a gorgeous work, and not just a celebration of inclusivity, but a heartfelt look at a specific family dynamic, and the reality that our lives are what we make of them. If you have a dream, it’s up to you to be brave enough to make it a reality.
Final Grade: A