There is no question that Ruby's awakening about music can be vigorously corny—but the thing is... so are a lot of real high school awakenings about art. I myself went to a summer music camp as a teenager where lots of people were very serious musicians headed for conservatories. We learned the song "I Sing the Body Electric" from Fame—from actual, literal Fame, for heaven's sake!—and believe me, at 15 I was deeply moved by singing lines like "I'll look back on Venus, look back on Mars/ and I'll burn with the fire of ten million stars." It was extremely corny and it meant the world to me. What's more, our choral director believed everyone should know how to learn parts by ear, so she taught us that one without sheet music, just standing around together, which made it feel even more like a thing that would... you know, happen in a movie.
So while Ruby's path is audience-ready and feels engineered to cause tears, sometimes music and theater kids are exactly that swept up in what they're doing. It might be cheesy, but if you're going to go for this kind of grand emotion, this actually might be the right setting for it.
And in the meantime, you get a much more subtle story alongside that about the ways in which this family dynamic both hurts and serves everyone in it. Ruby feels like she's sacrificed a great deal for her family; her brother senses that she gets something from being the only person she thinks can communicate with the rest of the world effectively. This gentle study of patterns in families, where everybody can love each other while still being stuck in habits they need to break, doesn't have the bombast of the musical sequences, but it has its own resonance.
Did CODA deserve to crowd out everything else to the degree that it did when Sundance handed out its awards? Probably not. But there is a place for the crowd-pleaser, the tear-jerker, the movie that wants to manipulate your emotions and make you cry—particularly if it manages to bring something new to an old formula. The performances here, especially from Kotsur and Durant, neither of whom were actors I had seen much of, are excellent. And if it feels silly to cry while people sing, then, well, as we all learn in time, there are worse reasons for tears.
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