It is difficult to not view CODA, Sian Heder’s lighthearted sophomore feature, with a substantial amount of goodwill. Presenting a lovable cast in an uplifting coming-of-age narrative, the film shines by showcasing an underrepresented kind of family: a deaf household with one hearing child. But it doesn’t take long into the film to discover that despite its under-examined circumstances, CODA plays too firmly and safely within a particular formula, liberally ripping off two dozen or so movies whose heartwarming stature it wants to emulate.
Led by a charming Emilia Jones as Ruby, CODA (an acronym for “child of deaf adults”) centers on a hearing daughter of a deaf nuclear family. Ruby not only works on the family fishing boat, but she serves as an interpreter between her parents and the likes of business partners and doctors. Her imminent high school graduation looms large at the same time that the local fishing economy threatens the family’s volatile business, but the biggest wedge comes as Ruby’s choir director (Eugenio Derbez) unlocks her ambitions as a singer. Torn between responsibility and her own personal goals,
With touching work from Troy Kotsur and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as Ruby’s parents, the film is blessed with a strong ensemble that bursts beyond the limits of the rigid archetypes the script confines them within. The film’s heavy hand with pushing each character toward a type—whether sassy teacher, horny parent, or the like—makes for a deflating pairing with its overly broad attempts at humor. It leaves the interesting character beats overshadowed and pushed to the film’s fringes, like Ruby’s brother Leo (an arresting, if underused Daniel Durant) and his own burgeoning independence. Ruby sometimes frustrates as the least appealing character, but largely feels like a conceivably timid and unsure teen (her flat romance with Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is merely set dressing). For a film that does many things well that we want from other films, such as casting all deaf performers in deaf roles, it does seem unaware of its best attributes and doesn’t always trust the simple power of its setup to deliver drama on its own.
Despite CODA’s uncommon onscreen family dynamic, the film remains hindered by rampant cliches throughout. In hitting every expected beat (some silly, some lifted outright from other films), the film becomes unsatisfying and limited in its emotional impact out of sheer predictability, particularly in its final act where an unrealistic audition scenario fully overpowers an adjacent, richly moving father-daughter musical moment as the film’s climax. By the time we reach its musically thunderous and heavily sentimental close, the emotional becomes more cloying than affecting. “Both Sides Now” features very prominently, and less effectively as it has elsewhere, as if movies haven’t already hammered it into audiences’ brains. It’s starving for an organic, unexpected moment to match the humanity of its intentions, making for a deeply contrived experience when it wants to be a specific and human one.
Unfortunately a new go-to example for overhyped Sundance feel-good comedy despite its several wins at this year’s festival (though it most deservedly won a prize for its wondrous ensemble), the film chooses the most obvious of influences with little originality of its own. There is a deep well of feeling at the center of the film, but Heder labors manufactured moments rather than trusting her material. What CODA does get right is crafting characters we care about and places them in situations easy to connect with on a human level, even if it unconfidently layers them with hackneyed devices throughout.