FilmWatch Weekly: ‘CODA,’ ‘Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power,’ and ‘Cryptozoo’

CODA: "From the get-go, the portrayal of this family feels as authentic as any glimpse into deaf culture I’ve seen on screen"

Emilia Jones in “CODA” (Apple TV+)

It’s fair to say that CODA is a revelation. Coming from an unheralded director making her second feature, and with barely a recognizable face in its cast, this Sundance Award-winning drama tells a universal coming-of-age story while providing genuine emotional insight to a very specific scenario.

The title is an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults, which is what teenaged Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is. Her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) operate a struggling fishing boat, with help from Ruby’s older, also deaf, brother Leo (Daniel Durant). From the get-go, the portrayal of this family feels as authentic as any glimpse into deaf culture I’ve seen on screen (although last year’s Sound of Metal is no slouch). For instance, if you pay close attention you can pick up some hilariously vulgar ASL slang when the siblings taunt each other.

Ruby operates in two worlds, gutting fish and serving as her family’s go-between when they need to interact with the hearing community while also attending high school, where she decides on a whim to go out for choir. (She sings out loud while working on the boat, with the abandon of someone who knows there’s no audience to hear her.) The ebullient, almost cartoonish instructor (Eugenio Derbez) draws her out of her shell and recognizes her vocal talent.

This sets up a classic conflict: should Ruby pursue the opportunity to attend a prestigious music school, or should she stay home and help the struggling family business? And how will this decision be affected by the fact that her parents literally cannot appreciate an increasingly important part of her identity?

What could have been a puddle of mawkish sentimentality instead culminates in one of the most moving final sequences in recent memory, thanks to the stellar performance elicited by director Sian Heder. This is only the second feature directed by Heder, who previously wrote for Orange Is the New Black, and here adapts a 2014 French film.

It’s no surprise to see Matlin, the only deaf actor to ever win an Academy Award, here, but it’s a pleasure to see her tackle a maternal role that’s as meaty and challenging as any she’s played since that win for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. Kotsur, another veteran deaf performer, meets her every step of the way as Ruby’s gruff but loving father, who’s resentful of his economic hardship but not his disability—he’s prone to blasting gangster rap at high volume in his pickup, a trait that does not endear him to his daughter when he picks her up from school.

And Jones, who also co-stars in the Netflix series Locke and Key, knocks it out of the park as Ruby. There’s rarely, if ever, a false note in her portrayal of a good-hearted kid torn between her own ambition and her loyalty to her family. And she’s got a good enough set of pipes to make the audience believe in her artistic promise. If it were just a case of wrapping a cliched family drama in a deaf-culture skin, CODA would be a mere curiosity. But by grounding itself in specific characters and a realistic milieu, it becomes a genuine crowd-pleaser. (Opens Friday, August 20, at Cinema 21; also streaming via AppleTV+.)

***

AS THE UNITED STATES WRAPS UP TWO DECADES embroiled in war in Afghanistan, the consensus is that all the bloodshed and sacrifice made by American troops has been something close to a colossal waste. If only someone had pointed out the dangers of committing the country to such an open-ended military mission in the days following 9/11, perhaps there could have been a real debate about the appropriate response to those heinous attacks.

Representative Barbara Lee of California.

Oh, wait—someone did point that out: California Representative Barbara Lee, who was famously (or infamously) the only “no” vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that gave President George W. Bush and his successors almost unlimited deference in their prosecution of what we used to call the Global War on Terror.

It’s fitting, then, that as the consequences of that nearly unanimous vote are perhaps clearer than ever, an admiring documentary about Representative Lee, who still represents her Oakland district in the House, is making its debut. Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power begins with a recap of that fateful 2001 vote, and it eventually features several progressive Congresspeople who voted yes, including the late civil rights icon John Lewis, lamenting their lack of courage in following Lee’s lead.

It’s either a quirk of history or a synecdoche of American culture that, when Congress voted to declare war in 1941, and when it delegated that authority to the President in 2001, the solitary “no” votes came from women. (Montana Representative Jeanette Rankin, a declared pacifist, was the former, and she also voted against U.S. entry into World War I.) In any case, Lee, as this documentary details, has been a forceful voice for peace, as well as for marginalized communities, for decades.

There’s more than a little hagiography here, as sympathetic voices including Van Jones, Alice Walker, Senator Cory Booker, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez laud Lee as an inspiration. But the biographical details related by director Abby Ginzberg tend to back them up. After leaving an abusive marriage, Lee raised her two children alone and on government assistance, while attending Mills College. She later volunteered with the Black Panther Party to help bring free clinics and breakfasts to the children of Oakland, before interning with Representative Ron Dellums and beginning her own political career.

In other words, this is someone who has walked the walk. And her story is, in fact, testament to the fact that being a lone voice in the wilderness can be preferable to compromising one’s principals for political gain. (Opens Friday, August 20, at the Kiggins Theatre)

***

THE AMERICAN CARTOONIST DASH SHAW has been producing idiosyncratic work governed by a lyrical primitivism for the last couple of decades. He made his film writing and directing debut with the memorably titled animated feature My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea back in 2016, and now he’s back with the equally surreal Cryptozoo. The concept here is that there exists, on an island somewhere, a zoo containing specimens of a wide variety of mythological creatures, also known as cryptids. It takes a while to get to that concept, though, as we’re initially introduced to a pair of young lovers who stumble upon the compound when they scale a fence and are confronted by a unicorn. Later, we meet Lauren Grey (voiced by Lake Bell), a Lara Croft-esque adventurer devoted to rescuing endangered cryptids.

A scene from “Cryptozoo.”

It turns out that a creature from Japanese folklore known as a baku, which subsists on human dreams, is in danger. (Dungeons & Dragons players will be pleased to hear a few mentions of the legendary tarrasque.) Lauren, accompanied by a human-passing gorgon, embarks on a quest that eventually brings them to the Cryptozoo itself, and forced to confront the question of whether these unique beasts should be corralled or simply forgotten. Mostly, the story is an excuse for the trippy animated flights of fancy—while Shaw is credited as the film’s director, his wife, Jane Samborski, is credited with directing the animated segments. Which are pretty much the entire film, but I’m sure it makes sense.

Like High School Sinking, Cryptozoo features a voice cast of hip Hollywood talent: Michael Cera, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. And it’s definitely a memorable visual experience, thanks to the ineffable hand-drawn collage style. But there’s something a bit half-assed and ragged about the whole thing, even if intentional, that leaves one wanting a more polished approach to the material. As always, any animation that refuses to conform to the commercially mandated, computer-generated standards of the day is appreciated, but Cryptozoo still ends up feeling a little, too, well, cryptic. (Opens Friday, August 20, at Cinema 21)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

Comments are closed.