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'CODA' Review: A charming, saccharine Oscar hopeful

'CODA' - Sian Heder

The Academy Awards love a self-serving quota to fill when it comes to the Best Picture nominees, with the 2022 ceremony being no different. A hard-hitting war story is covered off with Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard fulfils the biopic quota, and the unlikely film CODA is the plucky independent weepy that is punching well above its weight. 

Though perhaps this is simply a cynical take as whilst Sian Heder’s low-budget certainly pedals some serious emotional manipulation, it is also undoubtedly charming and so overwhelmingly saccharine that it’s difficult to be truly critical against its existence. 

Standing for ‘child of deaf adult’, CODA makes its intentions abundantly clear, following the life of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) as she stands at a crossroads in her life, stuck between assisting her family business led by her deaf father (Troy Kotsur) or pursuing a career in music performance. Though structurally identical to countless other coming-of-age stories, it is the material of this English-language remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier that makes it so exceptional, creating an emotional dynamic between the musically inclined protagonist and her deaf family. 

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Played out like a straight to TV musical drama, CODA is built from the structure of countless other coming-of-age movies, adopting a rather technically bland approach to its subject matter, from an ordinary colour palette to cinematography that lacks true inspiration. This is not what Sian Heder pursues to champion, however, with her film focused on conveying a story of genuine charm rather than bowling the audience over with technical might. 

Careful toeing the line between being cringeworthy and endearing, Heder’s script can often dip its toes in the former category, particularly at the start when it’s trying to fuel its narrative core, though often remains somewhat balanced. Stabilising the film, in reality, is the delightful performance of Emilia Jones in the lead role, and Troy Kotsur as her loving father who provides several tear-jerking moments as he conveys sincere care and affection for his daughter. 

The same can be said for the rest of the core family, with Marlee Matlin putting in an understated performance as Ruby’s mother and Daniel Durant giving some dramatic oomph as the older brother Leo. Despite their greatness, they stand out as professionals among peculiar caricatures in Heder’s script, as many of the supporting cast, including Ruby’s singing teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), are played off with grand melodrama. 

Glued together by the charming lead cast, CODA is a charming, palpable human project that feels crafted with love, both by the writer and director Sian Heder, as well as the dedicated team of principal actors. More than ready to tug and yank on the emotional heartstrings as and when it pleases, whilst the narrative feels rather artificially constructed, its sheer charm manages to shake off such cynicism. 

Sweet, tender and exceedingly charming, CODA tries hard to seize your attention for 90 minutes, doing so momentarily through blurred, teary eyes, even if it slips from all relevance shortly after completion.

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