It seems I like to keep things thematic – these two films both ended up being Coming Of Age pictures.
The title of this film is a bit of a pun – “Coda” is not only a musical term, befitting our lead’s musical aspirations, it’s also an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults, befitting our lead’s family life. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her fishing family, and throughout her whole life has served as the interpreter for parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). She also loves singing, however; mostly to entertain herself on the boat, belting out Motown classics as she hauls in nets with Frank and Leo. But years of bullying have left her too shy to sing in front of anyone else – that is, until the day when her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) joins the school choir. Ruby joins mainly to be near him, even though singing in front of hearing people scares her silly – what if she’s been a terrible singer all this time?….But her choir teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) assures her it’s quite the opposite – she’s good. Really good. So good that he encourages her to apply for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, like Miles is doing. Ruby is very tempted – but what will her family do without her there to help?
Strictly speaking, this is kind of a formulaic plot; you can probably predict exactly what’s going to happen at every turn. What saved this from feeling formulaic for me is the characters themselves – I may have been able to predict what would happen, but getting to know and like the characters made me care about it. Ruby and her family are a noisy, complicated, irreverent, outspoken and tight-knit mob – the kind who squabble amongst themselves one minute but have each other’s backs the next.
And they are funny. There’s one scene between Ruby and Jackie which starts off sentimental and poignant, as Ruby asks Jackie if she was ever disappointed Ruby wasn’t deaf like the rest of the family. Jackie surprisingly confesses she was at first; she’d been worried she and Ruby wouldn’t be able to get to know each other, and that Jackie wouldn’t be a good enough mother for her. Marlee Matlin’s monologue about her fears is moving enough – but then when Jackie ends by saying she hoped this didn’t make her a bad mom, Ruby jokes, “Nah – you’re a bad mom for different reasons.” It’s obviously a joke – but it’s the kind of joke you can only find in a family that knows everyone loves each other.
But Jackie isn’t the only one with a poignant child/parent moment. The family goes to Ruby’s choir concert as a visible show of support, even though they can’t hear a thing; during Ruby’s big solo, which we’ve been hearing her rehearse throughout the movie, the sound cuts out entirely as we watch Jackie, Frank, and Leo furtively glance at everyone else, reading their faces and reactions as it’s the only way they can tell how she’s doing. Frank takes Ruby aside when they get home to ask her to sing for him again. It’s a remarkably intimate scene; as she sings, Frank watches her intently and gently touches her throat and face, feeling her vocal cords and the vibrations of the music coming from her. The obvious joy on her face and the strength of her sound lead Frank to give serious thought to where Ruby ultimately belongs.
While there have been one or two nit-pickers who’ve said that some of the times Ruby “interprets” weren’t realistic (she’s dragged into one of Frank’s doctor visits, even though most doctors would have an ASL interpreter on staff), most members of the hearing-impaired community applauded the film – largely for depicting deaf characters as having way more agency than usual. They also appreciated Jackie and Frank having a very healthy sex life (much to Ruby’s chagrin once or twice). But most importantly – all of the deaf characters in the film were cast with hearing-impaired actors, largely at the insistence of Marlee Matlin. Troy Kotsur is up for a Best Supporting Actor statuette himself.
This is also a bildungsroman like Coda – but it was a bit more opaque for me. My quip to Roommate Russ after I watched it was “it’s almost like if Paul Thomas Anderson had directed Rushmore instead.” It even has a similar retro feel as Rushmore – the whole film is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, and draws heavily on some 70s tropes, like waterbeds, pinball arcades, and the gas crisis.
Our lead is 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a former child actor aging out of his career. Acting gigs are few and far between now, and he’s back at regular public school – where he meets Alana (Alana Haim) on school picture day, as she toils as the photographer’s assistant. Gary hits on her, using his show-biz connections as clout – but Alana is ten years his senior and initially very unimpressed.
But Gary is so persistent she finally agrees to meet him for dinner. Alana is the youngest of three daughters in a somewhat strict Jewish family and has been struggling to “find herself” a bit – if nothing else, becoming friends with Gary will keep her from being bored, and following along with Gary’s harebrained get-rich-quick schemes will let her tell her father that she’s trying to find serious work. And maybe Gary’s connections will let her launch the acting career she’s thought of trying. But Gary’s obvious feelings for her are a constant source of tension – as are her own shifting feelings towards him.
Licorice Pizza is rather less straightforward than Coda was – and I’m afraid that I had a hard time following along in places. There are a few places where it feels like entire scenes were cut out of the film that would explain things like “why is Gary suddenly trying to sell waterbeds” or “what happened to the film Alana maybe was getting cast in”. Anderson has included some inspired cameos – Bradley Cooper is especially hilarious as a funhouse mirror version of Hollywood producer Jon Peters, one of Gary’s waterbed customers, while Sean Penn and Tom Waits have a kookoopants scene as (respectively) a washed-up actor trying to seduce Alana and the equally washed-up director trying to get him to restage a motorcycle stunt he’d done in an earlier film. But I would happily have traded any cameos for even just a couple extra scenes for Gary or Alana. Haim and Cooper do fine, the script just plain seems to have left some chunks of information out, and it feels more like a bunch of random vignettes instead of a story. Roommate Russ had his own joke when I asked him if he had trouble following the plot – “What plot?”