Two new films opening this weekend are trying to get a jump on the upcoming 2021-2022 awards race. The first is “CODA,” debuting on Apple+ this weekend. The film, starring Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, took the Sundance Film Festival by storm back in January, winning virtually all top prizes and causing a bidding war between film studios for distribution rights.
Apple+ emerged as the winner, not only nabbing a crowd pleaser for its streaming service but for a film that’s likely to get Apple a front-row table at the next Oscars.
Your other choice this weekend will require a trip to the cinema as “Respect,” the Aretha Franklin biopic, finally makes its debut after a year of delays.
The word CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adult, and that’s essentially what the film is about. Relative newcomer Emilia Jones (“High Rise,” “Youth,”) will blow you away with her voice and talent. She plays high school senior Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a deaf family that includes parents Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant).
Her love of music, specifically singing, isn’t understood by her family who physically can’t hear her stunning voice but also actively chooses not to see her passion. Ruby has become the interpreter for her family and their fishing business. Stepping away to pursue her own dreams will leave the people she cares about most once again struggling to adapt.
“GLOW” and “Orange Is the New Black” director Sian Heder delivers a film that is funny, heartwarming, and quite emotional. Heder’s script finds excitingly fresh territory in the coming-of-age genre by bringing the audience into a complicated world that last year’s “Sound of Metal” only hinted at.
“CODA” checks nearly all the boxes, with standout performances from Jones and Durant. It’s informative, original, entertaining and entirely captivating. Comedian Eugenio Derbez (“Overboard” and “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”) is the film’s weakest link. Even with his comedic energy at about half its normal level, his character, the music instructor, often feels like he’s performing in a different film.
Ironically, both awards-potential films opening this week are about music, specifically singing. Where “CODA” will have audiences watching with little or no expectations, “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson, has a lot to prove. By now, if you have seen one musical biopic, you have seen them all. The formula hasn’t been updated for ages, “Ray” being the last true musical biopic nominated for best picture (yes, I am glaring at you, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”)
“Respect” focuses on the early life of Aretha Franklin, highlighting various ups and downs of the vocal prodigy’s road to success. The script, one of the weakest aspects of the production, never lands on one theme (religious persecution, abuse, advocacy), instead highlighting multiple themes over two and a half hours, leading to multiple unanswered questions about the Queen of Soul.
Hudson, who won her Oscar for another musical performance (“Dreamgirls,”), along with Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (“Last King of Scotland,”) elevate the film with the strength of their performances. Mary J. Blige has a couple of memorable scenes, but the film itself never breaks away from the generic.
There is little cinematic creativity from the delivery of the performances to the way the conversations and drama unfold. Even the editing is a patchwork of indecision. For instance, we see Franklin receiving an award for her work in the Civil Rights movement, but the film never shows us what she did. The film moves from one interior scene to another, gradually giving off a claustrophobic, soap opera vibe that’s broken up with concert performances.
The burden lands entirely on Hudson, a likely best actress contender, to elevate “Respect” above the film’s overall lack of creativity. She successfully lands the specific way Franklin spoke, her mannerisms, as well as her easily identifiable posture. Whitaker does the same as Franklin’s father, Civil Rights activist Rev. C.L. Franklin. Whitaker is always at his best when he’s playing someone at their worst.
For die-hard Queen of Soul fans, “Respect” might not be anything new, certainly nothing you can’t get from reading a decent article about the icon’s life. For those not as familiar with Franklin’s life though, the film provides an artist-approved overview of her hardships and a handful of her most celebrated songs.
Final thought: With a theme of song this weekend, “CODA” is the must-see for this week and might end up being one of the best films of the year.