► CODA is streaming on Apple TV+ from 13 August.
To craft a crowdpleaser that can genuinely please crowds is no mean feat. A lusty round of silent applause, then, for Sian Heder’s CODA, which generates enough warmth to melt the hardest heart and to keep its Massachusetts Bay setting free of stray icebergs for the foreseeable future. It’s manipulative, for sure, but the feelings it manipulates are only the very nicest ones – in fact, in these numbed and weary times, you might be glad of the reminder that you can feel them at all.
A record-breaking acquisition out of the Sundance-that-wasn’t in January this year, until now CODA has been largely a solitary online small-screen experience, which feels exactly wrong. Not that Paula Huidobro’s photography, though warmly inviting and perfectly attuned to the weathered, oilskin prettiness of the blustery seaside setting, needs a big screen. Nor are the story’s themes so grandiose or its insights so intricate that we need a hushed and darkened room to absorb them – quite the contrary. CODA’s lines are bold and familiar to the point of cliché, and a significant part of the pleasure of such comfortable storytelling is the sense of being subliminally buoyed on the same broad, swelling tides as everyone else in a big room. Good that its time has now come: crowdpleaser, please meet crowd.
The source of all the perfectly synthesised good vibes is the lovable family at the heart of an otherwise strictly by-the-book coming-of-ager. The Rossis are a tribe unto themselves; mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) does the books, while father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and son Leo (Daniel Durant) work the family fishing boat, with youngest member Ruby (a breakout Emilia Jones) helping out in the mornings before school. However, Ruby has another area of responsibility: as the only hearing member of the family, it falls to her to be the sign-language interpreter and mediator between them and the townspeople of this small coastal community.
Until now her loyalties haven’t been divided, and her loved-up, sexed-up parents (Matlin and especially Kotsur deliver touching, funny, bawdy performances) have come to rely on her more than they perhaps realise. But when Ruby joins the school choir to get closer to the nice boy on whom she has a wholesome crush, eccentric music teacher Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) recognises her singing talent. He encourages her to apply for music college, which would take her away from her family at just the moment their livelihood is under threat from increased regulation and unscrupulous local fishmongers.
That Ruby’s talent is one that her loved ones are literally incapable of experiencing for themselves can be read as a higher-stakes allegory for any teenager’s first faltering steps toward independence in the face of parental incomprehension. Jackie even construes her daughter’s musical ambitions as a sort of rebellion at first: “If I was blind would you want to be a painter?” she asks sarcastically. But the set-your-watch-by-it structure of Heder’s screenplay dictates that such deeper currents can barely be implied before the genre’s next dramatic beat – the trip to the secret bathing-nook, the first kiss, the mandatory false start at an important audition – has to occur. This means that often the more difficult character transformations happen, unexplained, when we’re not looking, and obstacles that are set up as insurmountable dissolve in the space between one buoyant cut and the next. Background issues, like the family’s financial straits and their lack of integration with the hearing community, are serious enough to have Ruby on the verge of abandoning her dreams in one scene, but then are being joyously, easily, montage-ily addressed in the next. In her laudable determination to make a film featuring deaf characters played by deaf actors that does not become an ‘issues movie’, Heder does end up soft-pedalling the specific challenges of ableism and prejudice that the hearing-impaired face.
But then, CODA is not much about real life. Despite some nicely observed lived-in details, this is smoothed out, wishful thinking, setting a ‘get your heart right and nothing can stop you’ moral loose among people of such unfailingly good will that the outcome is never in doubt. One montage plays out to Ruby’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’, and it’s a musical choice that feels like the film in miniature. Scrubbed of the smoke and regret that make the original such an anthem of hard-won life experience, only the brightest, most hopeful notes remain, ringing pure and sweet and appealing, if not exactly true.