REVIEW: CODA (2021)

Emilia Jones as ‘Ruby Rossi’ in Sian Heder’s CODA – Photo: Apple TV+.

Directed by Sian Heder – Screenplay by Sian Heder.

Whenever a film wins the Academy Awards’ Best Picture the spotlights start to assemble on top of it. People wish to poke holes in the film, call it overrated, and, in general, it suddenly has to live up to loftier expectations than it had to back when it was just a popular film. Moonlight was able to handle those spotlights, and it is still one of the previous decade’s great Best Picture winners (even though I preferred La La Land). Green Book, on the other hand, not so much.

Like I wrote in my review of Green Book: “Would this film be treated differently going forward were it not the Best Picture winner? Undoubtedly, but that isn’t the reality. […] It isn’t necessarily a terrible film, but it is a bad choice for Best Picture right now.” And so now the spotlights have gathered on Sian Heder’s CODA, the Best Picture winner at the 94th Academy Awards. Does it live up to its new title? Is it a worthy winner? Let’s have a look.

A coming-of-age dramedy, Sian Heder’s CODA is a remake of the César Award-winning French-Belgian 2014 film La Famille Bélier. The film follows Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones), a child of deaf adults (i.e. CODA), as she has to juggle high school and her dreams of having a career in music, all the while her family expects her to help them with their struggling fishing business. As the only person who can hear in her family, she is priceless out on the water, but Ruby is starting to realize that she also needs to prepare for her own life to begin.

Sian Heder’s CODA is a very sweet coming-of-age film, and it is the exact kind of family crowdpleaser that I think is easy to fall for thanks in large part to the open and caring performance delivered by Troy Kotsur, who really is fantastic here as Ruby’s father. I can see why he’s been earning a lot of accolades far and wide, as he is quite clearly the best thing about the film. Kotsur is, at times, hilarious, and the film is very enjoyable. It’s a tearjerker that warms your heart, riles you up, and puts a big smile on your face as the closing credits hit. Emilia Jones is really strong here in what will undoubtedly be her breakthrough performance, and I really enjoyed seeing Ferdia Walsh-Peelo again, after his breakthrough performance in Sing Street, a superior coming-of-age film about music. Make no mistake, CODA is a good film.

Harmless and big-hearted, it is the kind of film that it feels wrong to skewer harshly, but to reiterate, once a film wins Best Picture, you tend to look at it differently and your expectations increase significantly. Although it has its wonderfully sweet and moving moments, I think it is also fair to say that the coming-of-age music narrative feels very formulaic and is undeniably predictable. So much of this film feels trite and this is especially true of the spirited but cliched music teacher played by Eugenio Derbez.

Although I really enjoyed this movie, I have to say that it is a film that suffers when it is compared to the Darius Marder film Sound of Metal from 2020, which, too, was about music and the deaf community. Both are good films, but I think Sound of Metal has a lot more to say and is way more ambitious in its storytelling. CODA only rarely comes close (I can think of one scene) to capturing the same feeling that Sound of Metal did through its awards-winning sound work and sound transitions.

So, is CODA a worthy Best Picture winner? Well, time will tell and opinions will vary. On the whole, I don’t think it has as much to say as 2020’s Sound of Metal did, and I do think it is both formulaic, predictable, and slight. It isn’t the film that I would’ve voted for, but I do think it is a very sweet and very good film. I think Troy Kotsur’s performance is the thing that I will remember the film for, though, and not necessarily the film as a whole. But maybe a heartwarming and big-hearted film is exactly what the world needs right now.

7.9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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