Coda movie review: Apple makes its biggest bid for an Oscar, introduces a future movie star in Emilia Jones
Coda isn’t merely a feel-good movie; it’s the pinnacle of a new wave of post-Donald Trump cinema that can only be described as ‘happycore’. Directed by Sian Heder and featuring a star-making central performance by Emilia Jones, it’s one of the most joyous films you’ll watch this year, and a great companion piece to Apple’s breakout hit, Ted Lasso.
Easily the streamer’s biggest bid for an Oscar yet, Coda didn’t come cheap. Apple paid so handsomely for the comedy-drama that it broke the record for the most expensive Sundance acquisition by almost $8 million. To put that in context, last year’s Palm Springs outsold the previous record-holder by just 69 cents. But more importantly, it earned producer-star Andy Samberg a lifetime of admiration for the brilliant practical joke.
Watch the Coda trailer here:
Coda’s sweep at this year’s Sundance – it won all four major awards at the festival, a first – is reminiscent of its closest cousin: Little Miss Sunshine. Like that film, which sold for an amount that Heder’s film more than doubled, Coda is part coming-of-age comedy about a misfit girl and part family drama about the zany tribe to which she belongs.
Jones, whom I’d never seen before, is a movie star. She will earn an Oscar nomination for her performance here, and if things work out, have a career-trajectory like that of Emma Stone. I only hope that she avoids the allure of a Marvel movie — look what one of those did to Florence Pugh.
In Coda, she plays the teenager Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a culturally Deaf family that has been in the fishing line for generations. Their bond is threatened when new labour laws severely impact the business, and when Ruby, in the spur of the moment, decides to join the school choir and pursue her passion for singing.
This is where she meets the very John Keating-esque Bernardo Villalobos, played by Mexican star Eugenio Derbez. Mr V, as his students call him (much to his irritation), notices Ruby’s talent, and decides to nurture it. He encourages her to enrol in college, which will send her, for the first time, away from home. “There are plenty of pretty voices with nothing to say,” Mr V tells Ruby in an early scene, almost as a sales pitch. “Do you have something to say?”
He playfully puts her in the very awkward position of collaborating on a duet with her childhood crush, thereby opening the door for some romance. Not that the film needs it, but it wouldn’t really be a high-school movie without some young love, which Heder handles, like virtually everything else, with a tremendously steady hand.
And that’s what’s so remarkable about this movie. Coda is so understated in its manner that it’s easy to forget just how grave some of its themes are, and how confidently Heder navigates them.
For instance, Coda (short for child of deaf adults), is primarily in American Sign Language — a rich, expressive form of communication. It stars three Deaf actors in central roles, each of whom is deserving of awards attention. With films such as A Quiet Place and its sequel, and last year’s Sound of Metal, the road has been paved for actors such as Troy Kotsur, who plays Ruby’s dad Frank, to stake his claim on that Academy Award.
He’s absolutely magnificent in this film, especially in a climactic scene — one of Coda’s four false endings — in which Frank realises that there has always been a barrier between himself and his daughter. The constraints of language are causing conflicts in their lives. But there’s also separation anxiety; the near-constant pressure of finding success as working-class Americans; and Ruby, ironically, finally having found a voice.
Her family off-handedly guilt trips her about small things; her mother suggests that it is slightly insensitive of her to pursue singing, considering that her entire family is deaf. Frank, meanwhile, refuses point-blank to hire a hearing deck-hand, thereby forever shackling Ruby with responsibility that she never asked for. In one heated scene, she tells them what she really feels, that she has no desire to be their free interpreter for the rest of her life. They need to be more self-reliant, and so does she.
Heder directs with empathy and an astute eye. Her camera hovers over arms and legs, reading body language on her characters’ behalf. Frank, it is established early on, enjoys ‘listening’ to gangster rap, because he can feel the vibrations from the bass. It's a tiny detail that is beautifully paid-off in the film’s final moments. Coda might seem like an old-fashioned tear-jerker on the surface, but crucially, it earns every emotional beat.
An Oscar for Apple, in the same awards season that Ted Lasso dominated the Emmys, would do more brand-building for the tech giant than a keynote in which Tim Cook announces the return of Jony Ive or something. Beg, borrow, or steal an iPhone; Coda can't be missed.
Director - Sian Heder
Cast -Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar