Issue #63: A Family Affair 🏡
CODA + The Power of the Dog
Another week closer to the big day — Oscars, to be clear — another day we’re chipping away at our Best Picture list. It’s a late one this week, but we’re doing our best. For this issue, we found some resonance between a modern-day Deaf family and a 1925 Montana ranch. And yet, as Tolstoy says, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Read on for Cate’s insights on CODA, and Zosha on The Power of the Dog.
Cate on CODA
Siân Heder‘s CODA might just be this year's first Sundance hit. A feel-good, coming-of-age tearjerker about the only hearing member of a Deaf family, CODA explores some the dynamics of the Deaf community by focusing on a single family unit.
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a quiet 17-year-old working mornings before school on her family’s fishing boat. Withdrawn and unpopular, she is fiercely protective of her Deaf family, and acts as an intermediary, interpreter and guide between them and their larger Gloucester community. By necessity, she is involved in every aspect of her family’s affairs, and cannot imagine the possibility of a life outside of their little unit. No one else is the community can sign, and so their ability to participate in the circles of their town is limited.
But after joining the school choir, Ruby realizes that she has a passion for singing that would take her away from her parents and brother. And as her sense of obligation to them conflicts with her desire to become who she is, she begins to understand that it’s the weight of her own expectations that’s holding her back.
CODA operates with a light touch, but packs a big punch. Ruby’s parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) are still madly in love, and their randy antics provide much of the film’s delightful comedy. The two veteran performers ground the film, bringing a gravity to its more dramatic moments, but never tipping into melodrama. Daniel Durant, playing Ruby’s brother Leo, brings a tossed-off charm that curdles nicely into resentment where needed.
But Ruby herself is the true beating heart of the film, and she fills up the screen with a warmth pulled out of her by her choirmaster Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) in all of their scenes together. As Ruby begins to understand that singing is a dream she can achieve, Villalobos pushes her, providing her with personal vocal coaching, and the emotional support needed to dig deep and leave it all on the stage.
In some ways, this is a film about the Deaf community, but not quite about Deaf people, and I don’t know enough about Deaf culture to pass judgement on the story’s treatment of the Rossi family’s deafness as Ruby’s primary obstacle. An incident that risks the family’s livelihood happens because of Ruby’s absence, and the burden of that unearned guilt weighs heavily on her. It also brings to the fore, her brother’s resentment and not being allowed to lead their family. As the oldest child and heir apparent to the business, Leo wants to step up and take on a bigger role, but his parents’ reluctance to interface with a hearing world that treats them as little more than a nuisance means he is repeatedly sidelined.
But in the end this beautiful little film is a family drama about letting go. Ruby must learn to let go of the idea that her parents are her responsibility, and they in turn have to let go of the assumption that she will always be there as their go-between to the hearing world. The film’s back half is especially sentimental, and it will be a challenge to stay dry-eyed through the wonderful culminating scene. As Ruby learns to integrate her hearing identity with her Deaf culture, she begins to understand that she can create beautiful things if she embraces every part of herself. She grows, and her family grows with her, stretching to accommodate the vacuum of her coming absence in a way that serves them all. CODA is sweet, sincere and genuinely funny in parts, and it’s precisely the kind of coming-of-age film that we should hope to see more of.
Zosha on The Power of the Dog
My favorite thing about The Power of the Dog is the presence carried through every shot. The film, nominated for a handful of Oscars this year and back in the news again for a reason we shan’t be talking about here (what is New Zealand if not Montana persisting?), is at first blush simple: Polished and quiet rancher George (Jesse Plemons) moves his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) into his Montana ranch. This rankles his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), all bluster and bravado as he senses the dynamic shift between himself and George; he takes equal umbridge with Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who he sees as too sensitive for his liking.
You could take this plot description on its face; it is technically what happens. And yet, the beauty of Power of the Dog is how it pulls back the layers the way someone might pluck petals off a flower. Jane Campion, the writer and director of this fine film, masterfully holds the tension not just within a scene or throughout the film, but as a constant, pulled in different directions all at once. Rose is rankled by Phil, and later by George pushing her to be all she can be; his pressure comes from his aspirations, but also from Phil.
Phil, meanwhile, is perturbed by just about everyone, aside from the sycophantic young cowboys he surrounds himself with. They don’t challenge him, nor intrude upon his alone time. It’s for them he wallows in his masculinity, picking on everyone different from him so he might evade any deeper questions. So of course he’s most annoyed by Peter.
While Phil is the one that stays in focus throughout the story, I wouldn’t say he’s the main character. What Campion’s film so nimbly achieves is jumping from whichever character is most advantageous for us to sit with in a moment, without losing the presence of those characters in the story. As Rose and George share a tea to calm their (her) nerves on the way to the ranch, you can sense at once Phil’s already radiating disdain and her own doubts about what awaits her on the other side of the journey. The dynamics all feel there, choking the air around everyone, informing every beat and action. Such wide-ranging, tonal confusion is extended by Jonny Greenwood’s score, which is alternatingly alien, forbidding, warm, and heartfelt. Like Power of the Dog, it’s too smart to settle into one mode of being.
The cast here is phenomenal, measured carefully so as to not tip into archetypes or jokes. Dunst paints the portrait of a woman trying her best, already deeply uneasy and getting no help from Phil’s whistling to remind her she’s always being watched; even as she starts to abuse alcohol to help her cope, the character never becomes one-dimensional. Plemmons is the brother who’s ever hopeful, not naive but unable to say much more. We believe him as a man who has (until now) shared a childhood bedroom with his brother. Smit-McPhee lets curiosity guide Peter more than anything, allowing him to transgress boxes even the ranch hands attempt to confine him to, beguiling Phil all the more.
Cumberbatch is perfectly elegant as Phil, not playing against type (as many I’ve encountered have warned me) but playing into it: his bread and butter is playing assholes who are aware they’re assholes and have big, secret feelings about it. Phil is somewhere beyond that — he knows he might be wrong to toy with Rose and Peter, and yet he does so all the same because he on some level thinks it’s the right thing to do. He is gruffer than usual Cumberbatch, but he’s not particularly worse. What’s different — and what stands out — is the carefully measured way he lets Phil’s queerness eke out around the edges to those able to see it. Phil is always on guard when he’s around others, him and Campion not overplaying the ritual of going to the shed to polish Bronco Henry’s saddle. This is a performance (in all senses of the word) of restraint.
Ultimately it’s what gives way to the quiet third act, devoid of classic western tropes as it is. There’s no gun fights or horse races. Against the staggering New Zealand Montana landscape, Campion expertly dials in an ending that bundles up all these threads into something hefty. She understands that the experience of this movie for each character was a different one — a psychological horror, a hopeful tale of redemption, maybe even a dawning appreciation — and each one gets the end they were always headed to. It would be easy to miss the dominos that have tipped their way to this closing beat, or to let them settle too much into what they seem like on first watch. But I get the sense that Power of the Dog is a film that will reward rewatches, unpacking its nuance and lingering in the mind, a presence indeed.
Assorted Internet Detritus
CATE: The Batman has nothing on Prince, white girls be scamming but we like one of them better, Kim and Kanye are each other’s best masterpiece, what’s in a black name, justice for the bimbo, the unreality of Euphoria, and the limits of empathy tourism.
ZOSHA: How to live through an endemic when endemicity is meaningless. Why “follow the science” failed. We got blessed with Abbott Elementary! Peacemaker’s bisexuality should be more than just an easter egg. Tony Bennett, MTV star. Also I wrote up some of the best TV shows of the year, and The Dropout (which may still earn a place).
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Zosha + Cate <3