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Watching CODA wearing my Radically Reimagined Relationships (RRR) hat

Note: spoilers ahead.

I recently watched the Oscar-winning film, CODA, and I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the main character, Ruby, and her high school choir teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Mr. V.). Just to be clear -- so many other elements of the movie could be discussed: there are unforgettable scenes (the choral concert as experienced by her deaf parents and brother, for one, and the final audition scene for another) and lots of ways the movie was moving and thought-provoking. But as I considered the school-based scenes, I found myself wanting to tweak a few. Just a little.

ilmA couple quick items of setup (though I highly recommend you watch the film): Ruby, the main character, is a high school senior and the one hearing member of her family. All her life she has served as her parents’ interpreter in the world of hearing people, and they rely on her to help on their fishing boat, not to mention in doctors’ offices, and in interactions around town. Ruby loves to sing, and despite her exhausting schedule and the low profile she usually keeps in school, she signs up to sing in the school choir, where we meet Mr. V. In ensuing scenes, Mr. V. helps Ruby see and realize the life she dreams for herself.

That’s all great! But back to the aforementioned tweaks.

In his first meeting with the class, Mr. V. has each student come to the front to sing for him solo so that he can place their voices. When it’s her turn, Ruby can’t handle the thought of humiliating herself and runs from the class. “We’ve got a runner,” Mr. V. says to the class. (Not the most helpful or compassionate response, but we’ll move on…) When Ruby next meets Mr. V., it’s just the two of them and he tries to find out a little more about her. (Yay!) He learns she’s been made of fun of for years, and that she’s terrified she might not be talented. He still hasn’t heard her sing. Yet, in the next class, Mr. V. singles Ruby out, asking her to come to the front to sing and perform embarrassing vocal exercises.

Now, at this point, we – the audience – know Ruby can sing. We’ve heard her twice, so we’re not worried. But Mr. V. doesn’t know, so this decision caused me to have less confidence in him. Ruby has run from the class, told him she’s spent years being mocked by her peers, and acknowledged a terror that she might not be talented. He has no idea what’s going to happen when she opens her mouth. All I wanted to change was for Mr. V. to have had some inkling that Ruby would be able to handle it before he put the spotlight on her and pushed. Maybe a quick scene in the staff room where another teacher mentions her talent, or maybe he could have heard her singing to herself before he entered the room. Something. In Radically Reimagined Relationship terms, it would be about putting just a touch more emphasis on safety and well-being.

Soon enough, Mr. V. does hear Ruby sing, and he offers to help her prepare for an audition at Berklee College of Music. He tells her that he doesn’t waste his time, and she must be fully committed. What he doesn’t do, apparently, is find out anything about the life she is living or the responsibilities she carries. He doesn’t know she wakes at 3 a.m. to work on the family fishing boat, and that their livelihood depends on her, or that when she’s late for their rehearsals, it is not due to laziness, poor time-management, self-absorption, or a lack of commitment. At one point when she's late, he tells her he won’t work with her anymore: “You’re late. You’re unprepared. You wouldn’t last two days at Berklee.”

(My thought was that Berklee would be a breeze compared to the schedule she was keeping, but I digress.)

I recognize that conflict is the engine of a good story. I’m fine with him screwing up here. But what was missing for me in his character arc as a teacher was a moment when he came to appreciate Ruby’s actual context. (Maybe a scene where he sees her working on the docks, or maybe he watches the television interview that made her late, where she’s translating for her parents? I’m sure the director could have thought of something.) Instead, the movie seems to leave us with the message that his approach was the firm kick she needed to take charge of her own life and future.

And for the movie, that’s fine. But in real life, wouldn’t it have been better for this exchange to have gone differently:

Ruby: (pleading) I have a lot going on!

Mr. V. (angry, refusing to work with her): Me, too! I have a whole life that has nothing to do with you.

As much as I enjoyed the character of Mr. V. and the relationship that does develop between him and Ruby, from a Radically Reimagined Relationships perspective, I wanted more humility, care, and curiosity. He can still be demanding. He can still insist on preparation and discipline and respect for his time. But couldn’t he also collaboratively find a time that worked for both of them?

Some may think I’m suggesting that Mr. V. has to baby Ruby or dial back his expectations. But that’s not my position. I only wanted him to demonstrate more of a sense that his student was a complex and complete human being -- which in some school settings might be the most radical part of Radically Reimagined Relationships. In real life, their relationship could have been important even if Ruby couldn't carry a tune.

What school-based scene in a movie would you like to tweak? Let us know!

Image Credit: By IMP Awards / 2021 Movie Poster Gallery / CODA Poster, Fair use,


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