I choked up early, and by the end I was an emotional mess.
That was my reaction to “CODA” (PG-13, 111 minutes, playing at Cape Cinema in Dennis and Waters Edge Cinema in Provincetown, and on Apple TV+), and I’m sure I won’t be alone.
Cambridge-born writer-director Sian Heder’s coming-of-age film, a multiple award winner at Sundance Film Festival, hits you like a song that takes your breath away. It takes a warm, funny look at a teen girl’s struggle to balance loyalty to family with her need to branch out on her own. It also stands out as a moving celebration of the transcendent nature of music.
CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, in this case teenager Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a hearing person whose parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), and older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), are deaf. The family lives in Gloucester, where Frank has a fishing business, and Ruby and Leo work with him on his trawler. Ruby also serves as a kind of interpreter, helping her family communicate with the hearing community. This becomes particularly important at present, as times are tough and Frank could be on the verge of losing the business and the boat.
Meanwhile, Ruby, who has always struggled socially thanks to kids making fun of her deaf parents, joins her high school choir. She has a passion for singing, and the demanding new choirmaster, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), aka Mr. V, quickly recognizes her potential as a vocalist and pushes her to excel. He pairs her with Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, star of “Sing Street”), the boy she secretly has a crush on, to perform the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell duet “You’re All I Need to Get By” (Mr. V obviously has great taste in music). It’s not long before Ruby’s gifts are on full display.
Soon she finds herself in a difficult situation in which pursuing her music education, her dreams, conflicts with helping her family when they appear to need her the most.
While this story development might seem predictable, the characters and their emotions are always genuine. And the specific challenges experienced by deaf people are handled here with sensitivity and intelligence. Oscar winner Matlin, Kotsur and Durant are all deaf in real life, and they’re all excellent, especially Kotsur as the easygoing, loving dad.
Jones is at the forefront of “CODA,” though, and she gives a poignant, captivating performance as Ruby, whose deeply felt emotions — for music, for her family — are at the heart of this beautiful film. **** (out of four)
An intimate look at Val Kilmer
When you hear the name Val Kilmer, which of his roles comes to mind?
Jim Morrison in “The Doors”?
Batman/Bruce Wayne in “Batman Forever”?
Iceman in “Top Gun”?
I’d go with his classic portrayal of tragic, charismatic (and often quite funny) gunslinger Doc Holliday in “Tombstone.”
But his greatest film role might be as himself in the heartbreaking new documentary “Val” (R, 109 minutes, on Prime Video).
Though film editors Ting Poo and Leo Scott make their directorial debuts with “Val,” the doc essentially is an autobiography. Kilmer not only is one of the producers, the film largely is made up of footage from home movies/videos the actor has shot throughout his life and career. In many ways it’s like going through a scrapbook of his life with him, and in fact there are scenes of him doing just that. Also, though Kilmer struggles to speak as a result of throat cancer, his son, Jack Kilmer, reads his words to provide the film’s narration. It’s no wonder that Kilmer seems to be telling his own story. He is.
Kilmer has long had a reputation for being difficult — including on the set of the debacle “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” in which he reportedly clashed with star Marlon Brando and veteran director John Frankenheimer. Kilmer confesses to bad behavior in the past and there are behind-the-scenes clips from “Dr. Moreau” that hardly capture Brando, Frankenheimer or Kilmer in the best light. Still, moviegoers looking for a lot of dirt on Kilmer, or others, likely will be disappointed (though it is interesting to see a bored, blob-like Brando lying on a hammock and dismissively asking Kilmer to give him a good push).
Kilmer’s ex-wife and former co-star Joanne Whalley also appears in the film, and while Kilmer discusses everything from his falling in love with her to learning that she was divorcing him, we never get her side of the story.
Then again, whether we’re dealing with an autobiographical or biographical film, book, play or anything else, do we ever get the full story? This is just one view of Kilmer — again, mostly through his perspective — and the results are perhaps more powerful, more poignant, more profound than the most revealing of tell-alls might be.
“Val” traces Kilmer’s life from childhood to the present day. It covers a lot of ground: how he took a serious interest in acting at an early age, how the younger brother who inspired him died as a teen, how he became the youngest person (at the time) accepted at Juilliard’s drama division, the ups and downs of his stage and screen career, his marriage to Whalley and his relationships with their two children, and his struggle with throat cancer and its aftereffects, which have left him speaking through a voice box device.
He emerges as a complex person — sensitive, argumentative, driven, funny, cheerful, moody, spiritual. The cancer has taken not only a physical but a psychological toll — How could it not? — but Kilmer clearly is trying to soldier on. He’s seen making appearances and signing autographs at a Western gathering and a comic convention, and while he acknowledges that it’s a comedown from his days as a major star, he’s grateful for his fans.
In fact, he seems grateful for many things — his family, his life — and there’s a sweetness that emerges from him, like when he claps happily to himself when he’s about to see his daughter, Mercedes, that warms the heart. It’s as if his illness has brought out the best in him.
One thing’s for certain: In sharing his life, and himself, Kilmer has given us a meaningful gift — and one of the best films of the year. ****
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
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Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org (archived shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/). He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.