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"CODA" 4K Review

 I'd been avoiding CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) for some time as the Oscars drew closer because after last year's poor Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal and the heavy Sundance hit and record-setting $25 million sale, I figured it was going to be another preachy slog that the Academy favors since entertaining movies are just for making money. When it surprisingly won the Screen Actor's Guild Best Ensemble Cast award it suddenly hinted at being a sleeper contender, so it was time to eat the broccoli. Surprisingly - and it's sad that the Oscars only surprise like this rarely - it was a lovely, sweet, funny family dramedy worthy of one's time.

 Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts CODA is the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her fishing family which includes father Frank (Troy Kotsur, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin, Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God 35 years ago), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). She helps the family on the boat, which causes her to fall asleep in school, and serves as their interpreter. It's a hard life and the fishing community is being pinched by poor payouts and government regulation.

 One day at school when signing up for extracurricular activities, she spots a boy she's crushing on, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), signing up for choir. She enjoys singing, but never really took it seriously. The choir's director is Bernardo "Mr. V" Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), a curt and imperious man, but genuinely interested in his students. He spots potential in Ruby and encourages her to study and apply to the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, but her obligations to her family and their seeming lack of support complicate matters, especially since they're trying to operate a co-op with other fishermen and are pinched financially which leads to legal troubles.

What makes CODA so enjoyable is that for the most part the situation is believable and the characters are realistic. The family is loving (especially the sexed-up parents as we learn in their introductory scene at a doctor's office) and tightly-knit; Ruby is cute and can sing, but she's not a young Mariah Carey type who'd smoke the competition on American Idol; the tensions between family loyalty and making one's way into adulthood when disabilities are involved are relatable; and while a satisfying ending is a given, it doesn't feel cheap or unearned.

 The performances are all strong and subtle though at first I thought Kotsur's nominated performance  was silently hammy, some quiet emotional scenes towards the end tempered that. That the schoolkids seemed school-aged - Jones and Walsh-Peelo were 17 and 18, respectively, when it was filmed in 2019 - and had a realistic relationship (read: didn't hop into bed immediately like an HBO or CW teen show) also rooted things. It's also beautifully photographed, which is surprising for an indie flick.

Adapting from a 2014 French film, writer-director Sian Heder's background in television (she was a writer/story editor on Orange Is The New Black) leads her toward the crowd-pleasing side of the path, but is that such a terrible thing? While Oscar loves to virtue signal with "challenging" movies (read: no fun lectures about the evils of everything that makes Hollyweird rich), the fact that the slight, but entertaining (unless you're a wokescold SJW) Green Book won a few years ago indicates upsets can occur. 

It's ironic that almost no one will have seen CODA because it's on Apple TV+, a small streamer compared to behemoths like Netflix and Hulu whose early offerings were thin and not particularly compelling, but are expanding into interesting directions. It's only $5 per month with a 7-day free trial, so it's possible to watch a heartwarming movie for free and not too much to graze what else is on offer.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Apple TV+


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