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- Directed by Sian Heder
- Written by Sian Heder, based on the film La Famille Bélier
- Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur
- Classification PG-13; 111 minutes
- Streaming on Apple TV+ starting Aug. 13
Deep in the dark days of January, the film industry was blinded by a bright light of rare good news: Apple TV+, the nascent streaming service from the world’s shiniest tech giant, had shelled out a record US$25-million for the rights to one of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s hottest titles, the family drama CODA. If movie theatres weren’t coming back any time soon, then at least here was a blessed sign that there was life for independent cinema outside the confines of the traditional marketplace. Huzzah!
The only hiccup is that, like most megadeals of Sundances past, the mountain-town fest produces a lot of breathless, oxygen-deprived daydreaming (even this year, when it was entirely virtual) and little sea-level reality. For starters: Apple has billions of dollars to spare, and maybe some of that continues to trickle down to the indie-film arena, or maybe that stops the moment that Tim Cook decides to make iFridges. But the larger problem: CODA isn’t nearly the miracle that the film industry is seeking. More like a temporary balm that lasts as long as a second-generation iPad charge.
An acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, CODA focuses on 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her deaf family, who run a struggling fishing operation in Gloucester, Mass. Life at home is no-frills but loving, with Ruby’s father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), barely able to keep their hands off one another. But there are tensions, namely: Ruby wants to go to music school for college – and even if her family could hear her sing, they would still struggle with sending their little girl away when any and all help is needed keeping their small business afloat.
Writer-director Sian Heder’s film is a genuinely sweet thing: The type of drama that loves its characters, and is determined to find a satisfying outcome for them. The downside, at least when a giant like Apple puts such heavyweight expectations behind the film, is that everything here is resolutely minor-key. The film is shot, edited and scored like a television movie, as if someone had set the aesthetic setting to “pedestrian.” The challenges extend to the narrative, too, with characters acting exactly as you think they might, and dramatic situations resolving themselves with pat everyone-learns-a-lesson solutions.
This all might be fine, or fine enough, if you didn’t know that Heder’s film isn’t even original-ish, seeing as it’s based on the 2014 French dramedy La Famille Bélier, at which point most audience charity dissipates.
Certainly, Heder should be applauded for casting deaf actors, and not just performers feigning deafness. Jones, meanwhile, is thoroughly charming as the ambitious Ruby, while the sexual energy between Matlin and Kotsur is undeniable. But there isn’t enough raw drama, deep-felt emotion or genuine artistry on display here to keep CODA from staring down its own obligatory end: a half-smile and a shrug. And that’s true no matter how much Apple decided to spend.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.