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The only reason tear-jerkers are considered low art is because we are all broken inside. Here’s how it works: You sob through a whole movie, and when the credits roll and you are jolted back into the real world, you rebuild the walls around your heart. Then you scoff about feeling “emotionally manipulated.” But isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? To be emotionally manipulated? Maybe the problem with tear-jerkers is that they’re just too good at it, and they make us feel things we’d rather keep buried. In turn, we bury the tear-jerker by labeling it as low art.
I’m afraid such a label may be affixed to CODA, a tear-jerker of the highest order. It’s a coming-of-age story that feels like a warm hug from an estranged parent. Yes, it’s filled with apparent cliches, including a family struggling with money problems, a protagonist who must choose between a small-town life and following her dreams in the big city, a crush on a cute, sensitive boy, a hyper-sexual best friend, and a sassy choir teacher who helps our hero self-actualize. These tropes have been worn into the ground, but here, they aren’t narrative shortcuts. Instead, they are a foundation on which the film balances a strong sense of place, genuine insight into familial relationships, and a depiction of an underrepresented subculture that is portrayed with an unusual degree of respect and authenticity.
CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and that’s how Ruby (Emilia Jones) has defined herself for eighteen years. Her parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are deaf, which makes Ruby both an outsider and a fundamental cog in her family. She’s their interpreter at work; they run a fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and it’s Ruby’s job to stop them from being ripped off by opportunistic distributors. She even has to tag along to the doctor’s office, where she is tasked with explaining to her parents that they both have jock itch and must abstain from sex while it heals. And you thought your parents were embarrassing.
In a twist of fate, Ruby’s passion is singing, a talent her family doesn’t appreciate. But Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), the choir teacher, recognizes her skillset and encourages her to audition for Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The relationship between Ruby and Mr. Villalobos comprises the most unimaginative sections of the film, but the actors make it work. Every time Derbez is about to veer into parody of a small-town diva, Jones grounds him with her effortless performance. The effect is reassuring, as if the film is recognizing its own cliches and course-correcting, which allows the viewer to be unperturbed by them and simply ride the wave of emotions underneath.
So much of CODA feels built from parts of other movies, but its portrait of Deaf culture is so startlingly original—and much needed—that it makes the rest easier to forgive. Depictions of deaf characters have improved significantly since 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, for which Matlin won an Academy Award. In that film, the protagonist’s refusal to speak aloud and instead to rely only on sign language was portrayed as a symptom of emotional dysfunction. Here, it is neither ignored nor pathologized, and Matlin successfully rebuffed a push by producers to cast a hearing actor as her husband. That effort pays clear dividends; Kotsur improvised heavily in American Sign Language and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs. Other films have cast hearing actors in deaf roles, a move that would inspire a significant backlash today. Deaf actors created the #DeafTalent social media campaign to call out productions that do so, a move that they argue portrays deaf life inauthentically and takes jobs away from deaf actors. The three deaf actors in CODA bring a lifetime of experience to their roles, resulting in characters that never feel defined solely by their disability. It’s refreshing to see deaf characters who are given space to be petty or make jokes or have rich sex lives or hurt each other the way all humans do.
What really brings CODA’s portrayal of deaf characters to life, however, is its understanding and realization of its cinematic potential. Writer-director Sian Heder (Tallulah) embraces sign language. The characters gesticulate wildly when they’re angry, filling the frame with dynamic movement that captures the eye. Even more impressive is her attention to the sounds of sign language. Heder and her incredible sound team capture a universe of slaps, pops, and angry exhalations previously unheard on film.
Perhaps it’s this combination of elements both new and familiar that jerk those tears out of you. An overuse of genre tropes typically cause viewers to disengage, but when paired with a starkly authentic glance into Deaf culture, they access a raw innerscape of primal memories and universal truths. Some will call it tear-jerking, but it would be more fair to say that CODA gives you space to allow your tears to be jerked.
CODA premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, Aug. 13.