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Everyone keeps a mental list of movies they mean to watch but never do. Movies make it on the list by virtue of good press or ads festooned with the stylized laurels and palm leaves of film festival awards. Broadly, these movies stay unwatched because, at the end of a long day, when you’re honest with yourself, you want the sweet, unearned pleasure of Keanu Reeves dismantling a clown car of assassins. But I argue these lists of movies we mean to watch but never do are functioning precisely as they should by quarantining movies for our protection. The last movie to break free of the list and make it to my TV screen was Manchester by the Sea (2016), a bleak coastal Massachusetts movie that shows how quickly and utterly life unravels. Since watching that movie, I can no longer walk to the corner store at night for beer, and I assume heartbreaking backstories for all the strange building custodians living in basement apartments.
CODA has occupied a spot on my list since it appeared on Apple TV+ in 2021. Most critics acclaim its greatness, but it appears to be a downer, mined with tragedy like Manchester. CODA is set in Gloucester, a 15-minute drive from Manchester by the Sea, so it’s stocked with a similar arsenal of environmental dreariness. Also, like Manchester, CODA tells the story of the struggling working class, which tends to be as depressing as the factories, coal mines, warehouses, and Walmarts the characters inhabit. (I say this as a person with origins firmly entrenched in the working class. My father was a welder and mother a factory worker.) A family depending on the sea for its livelihood adds another dimension of misery since the sea has it out for the working class (e.g., Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa’: “I got bills to pay and children who need clothes. I know there’s fish out there, but where God only knows”; The Perfect Storm, also set in Gloucester; Forrest Gump before Lt. Dan finds Jesus.)
And then there’s deafness. Besides being a music term, CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the hearing child living with her deaf family. I know little about deafness, but I don’t see how its unique challenges make working-class life easier.
In CODA, the deck is fully stacked for an orgy of misery to rival Manchester by the Fucking Sea (MFS). But surprisingly, CODA is a delight. It’s uplifting, joyful, and funny--everything that MFS is not. Weighty plot elements threatening to pull the movie into a tragedy tailspin are defused with humor and satisfying scenes of musical breakthroughs and emotional connections.
The early scenes of CODA efficiently unpack key elements of being a child of working-class deaf adults (COWDA?). I recognize Ruby Rossi because her life is remarkably similar to that of the child of working-class immigrants. Like the child of working-class immigrants, Ruby is vulnerable to social isolation, mockery, and shame. She seems to have only one friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth). Other classmates mock her for smelling like fish, and years before, when she first started school, classmates teased Ruby for talking like a deaf person, having been exposed to limited English at home. Ruby’s mortified by her socially clueless parents when they pick her up from school blasting rap music because her father likes feeling the bass. She’s ashamed by the shabbiness of her home when she brings another student, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), over to practice a duet. She runs away when it’s her turn to sing at choir practice because a lifetime of teasing has rendered her mute and taught her to expect ridicule from classmates.
Like the child of working-class immigrants, Ruby grows up quickly, and the dependent relationship between parent and child reverses. She translates for her parents at work, the doctor’s office, and restaurants. She helps her family financially, rising at 3 a.m. to work on the fishing boat before going to school.
Her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), says she was never a baby. She took care of her family at an early age as the liaison between the hearing and non-hearing worlds and believes they cannot make it if she’s not there to help them. When her family runs into legal and financial problems that threaten to upend their lives, Ruby (taking a cue from her duet, You’re All I Need to Get By, a song that Mr. Villalobos, her music teacher, says is about sacrificing everything for the person you love) offers to stop singing--the thing she loves most and her ticket out of the working class.
Humor is injected into the movie regularly to prevent CODA from tipping into despair. At the doctor’s office, Frank, the poet laureate of jock itch, describes its effects on his genitalia: “They’re like angry, hard, little beets. Covered in barnacles. And your mother has it worse. Like a boiled lobster claw.” (!!!) In another scene, Frank, wearing a very short robe like Will Arnett in 30 Rock, tells Ruby and her singing partner, Miles, to practice safe sex by pantomiming a soldier donning a condom helmet and discharging a rifle as Ruby dies a thousand deaths. Ruby’s only friend, Gertie, is courageously and hilariously horny. She asks Ruby to teach her to tell her brother “he’s really smoking hot” and that they should “totally get it on.” Instead, Ruby teaches her to sign that she is inflicted with herpes. CODA has an overreliance on crude humor, but since this is one of the guardrails keeping us from plunging into the darkness of MFS, I’ll take it.
The best parts of CODA are the scenes of Ruby making breakthroughs in singing and connecting with her father. I’ll comment on the former and leave the scenes with Ruby and Frank unspoiled. While working on Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Mr. Villalobos pesters Ruby until he uncovers why she holds back when singing. She fears sounding ugly, like a deaf person, and when she discards the fear that has been with her since early childhood, her voice is imbued with power and emotion worthy of Joni Mitchell. This scene reminds me of Dead Poets Society (1989), where Robin Williams draws a wild, sprawling poem about Walt Whitman as a sweaty-toothed madman from the stuttering, inarticulate, baby-faced Ethan Hawke.
In an early scene, Mr. Villalobos asks Ruby how singing makes her feel. And again, like the child of immigrants, she explains strong emotions better in her mother tongue. She shows grinding and tension in her gut, which breaks apart as she floats away. To Ruby, singing is what the movie’s humor and scenes of musical breakthroughs and emotional connections are to the audience. These release valves stop the movie from slipping into the Sisyphisian, working-class hell of MFS and make CODA a pleasure to watch.
Written by Sian Heder, Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Éric Lartigau, and Thomas Bidegain; Directed by Sian Heder