Entertainment

“CODA” Is a Feel-Bad Feel-Good Movie


It’s meant, all too conspicuously, as a feel-good movie. But “CODA,” an Oscar nominee for Best Picture that’s playing for free in select theatres this weekend (and is already streaming on Apple TV+), had the opposite effect on me. The movie, written and directed by Sian Heder, is based on the 2014 French film “The Bélier Family”; it’s the story of the Rossis, a third-generation fishing family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It focusses on one of the Rossi children, Ruby (Emilia Jones), a seventeen-year-old high-school senior whose parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), are deaf, as is her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). Ruby is a hearing person but fluent in American Sign Language, and her life revolves around the family business. She goes out on the boat each morning with Leo and their father, and, back on shore, negotiates the sale of their catch to a wholesaler who, they’re convinced, takes advantage of them as deaf people (and of Ruby as a child). The drama involves Ruby’s efforts to develop a life of her own, to break away from her family without breaking with it—even as she recognizes that her independent activities and her extended absence may threaten her family’s livelihood. It’s no spoiler, alas, to know that all comes out well in the end for all concerned. The narrative cards all come up aces, as is predictable from the moment that they’re dealt.

It’s an achievement of sorts—a display of craft that’s also a kind of craftiness—to establish a level of predictability that both guarantees a payoff and maintains a low simmer of suspense. The drama depends on sustaining a viewer’s rooting interest while keeping it unthreatened with the actual possibility of loss. It isn’t only the movie’s bright and perky tone that thrusts its characters risk-free into a risky world but also the contours of the drama itself, the kinds of events that are shown and the kinds that aren’t, the character traits that are defined (with the cinematic equivalent of Day-Glo highlighters) and the ones that are neglected. When Ruby is first seen on the boat, she’s singing along with a record of Etta James, and guess what: Ruby’s way out involves singing. In the hall of her high school, beside her locker, she stares at a boy she thinks is cute; in the next scene, students are signing up for extracurriculars, and that boy, Miles Patterson (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), chooses choir, so Ruby impulsively signs up for it, too. The music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), a.k.a. Mr. V., quickly discerns Ruby’s unformed talent and picks her for the group’s featured duet—with Miles. The teacher also encourages her to apply to his alma mater, the Berklee College of Music, in Boston—but the private study that he’s offering to prepare her for her audition conflicts with her family duties at the dock. Yet, guess what: Leo, too, is impatient to exert some control over the family business without depending on Ruby’s assistance.

The convenient lineup of plot details extends beyond the foregrounded action into its psychological loam and its real-world implications. Can’t afford college? There are scholarships. Ruby is bullied? Suck it up, use it, and move on. The wholesaler is taking advantage of the Rossis? They start their own co-op. The other fishermen either ignore or mock Frank and Leo for their deafness? See what happens when the Rossis make them some money. “CODA” is a tale of the boundless bounty of personal initiative. The movie’s main villains are “the Feds,” federal maritime inspectors who intrusively impose on the entire fleet of fishing boats and bring charges against the Rossis for not having a hearing person aboard ship. It’s a cinematic, libertarian fairy tale, a genre that’s hardly unprecedented: Clint Eastwood doesn’t stint on his caricature of bureaucratic order, and will even do so in defiance of the history that he films, as in “Sully.” But “CODA” doesn’t hint at the tragic sense of responsibility with which Eastwood matches his world view, or the symbolic imagination with which he evokes it.

The tale of work rewarded is also one of virtue rewarded, and its protagonists are defined by nothing but their virtues, of overtly calculated and oddly old-fashioned sorts. Frank and Jackie have an openly randy marriage (their loud afternoon sex turns into an absurd plot point), and the family gleefully talks dirty in A.S.L.; whereas Ruby, disdaining the sexual freedom of her best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), all but proclaims her chastity. The discussions never go beyond the immediate practicalities of the family’s business (and, as for those practicalities, there’s precious little of them). Ruby’s amiable blankness is a template for grownup viewers to fill in with their own projections of what constitutes a good kid. Besides their tight family bonds and their narrowly defined social ones, the Rossis remain undefined. There’s no politics, religion, or culture, and the action takes place in isolation from ideas, points of view, reflections on life; its progress comes through the realization of sentiment, and its resolution of conflict comes mainly through the elision of any potential grounds for conflict.

On the other hand, the movie itself displays an authentic and significant merit, which is to offer large and dramatically vigorous roles to three deaf actors of extraordinary talent, and their performances give the movie a semblance of vitality and of presence that leaps beyond the confines of the script. What their performances reveal is the poverty of the commercial cinema at large (and, truth be told, of independent filmmaking, too) in the casting of deaf actors, of actors with disabilities. Yet, in “CODA,” the burden of labor falls entirely on these actors to suggest that their characters are anything but stick figures of goodness and honor and have a three-dimensional inner life. (Kotsur’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor is well deserved, for both the quality of his performance and the quantity of character-building that it demands.) Heder directs with a plain efficiency that lays the scripted events end-to-end and leaves out any feeling that the characters may exist between those scenes. The sense of cards, discrete and numbered, being turned over gets in the way of a viewer’s free perception and unencumbered thought. The movie is a litmus test of the willingness to be pulled along, from start to finish, staring straight ahead while being told that there’s nothing to see. The sense of calculation makes the journey feel like a lockstep march; the movie’s sense of a story that’s dictated rather than observed makes its good feelings feel bad.



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