The Aisle Seat: “CODA”: A Successful, Slightly Atypical Hollywood Tearjerker

Thomas Burchfield
5 min readApr 8, 2022
(CODA cast: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin. Credit: Apple TV)

As this year’s Oscar telecast approached, my handicapper’s intuition, honed by years of experience, told me The Power of the Dog would win Best Picture. I’d barely heard of the eventual winner, CODA. But now that I’ve seen it, it’s clear why Academy voters gave it the top prize.

CODA checks all the boxes that make for a traditional Best Picture winner: It has warmth, romance, sentiment, humanistic principals; and it’s very well crafted.

What sets it apart is its theme: the struggles of deaf people and their children in a hearing world. Happily, they’re excellently played by professional deaf actors, among them Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin.

In tone and style, though, it locks right into traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Like Going My Way (1944), you don’t watch a movie like this to be challenged or disturbed (as we were with the 2019 surprise winner Parasite). You’re looking for a place in this frightening era where people try to act decently. You’re there to laugh and to cry. In that sense, CODA does a fine job.

In a rather distant irony, the story draws from the same narrative template as The Jazz Singer (1927). Both tell about a young person’s struggle to escape the provincialism of family and tradition — to become a singer. (The Jazz Singer was also the first feature movie of the sound era.) It’s the classic story of the war between duty and dreams.

Nearly a century after that film, CODA’s protagonist is, like Al Jolson, also a singer. We meet Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), seventeen years old and mortifyingly shy, while she’s working on her family’s fishing boat, off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

For the Rossis, it’s a tough, barebones livelihood. How tough becomes clear when we see that Ruby is a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). Deafness has made Rossis both intensely clannish and profoundly dependent on Ruby as their essential and sole link to the hearing world. Without her, their boat doesn’t leave the dock and they’re out of business.

Ruby’s role as a CODA makes her an outcast at school and the target for the usual gang of high-school bullies. Her future seems set until an unrequited crush on fellow student Miles (Ferdia…

Thomas Burchfield

Essayist, film critic, humorist, and novelist. The author of 1920s noir gangster novel , BUTCHERTOWN, available at Amazon and other booksellers.