Two Autumn Films

At the Movies: The Heartfelt Story of a Deaf Family and a Moving Process Story of the 9/11 Aftermath

42

“Worth” follows the horrific 9/11 attacks, after Congress has appointed renowned mediator Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to lead the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which aimed to allocate financial resources to the families of the victims (more than 7,000) (the film, running 118 minutes and rated PG-13,” opened in early September and is streaming on Netflix).

Feinberg, as Special Master, and his firm’s head of operations, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), face the impossible task of determining the “worth” of a life to compensate families who had undergone unfathomable losses. A non-negotiable element of the settlements states that families could never file suit against the airlines for any lack of security or unsafe procedures. The special master was given two years to come up with a viable compensation plan.

At first, Feinberg and company use a formula based on each victim’s salary, but, when presenting this to an audience of the edgy families, the latter erupt in protest. One of those attending, Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a community organizer mourning the death of his wife, calms the crowd down but later informs Feinberg that he totally disagrees with his formula and begins lobbying to “Fix the Fund,” arguing for close listening to the family members instead of treating the victims as a cold numbers game.

As applications for the Fund lag behind a target 80 percent participation, Feinberg changes the focus of his team, as we see Biros, a new Asian-American recruit Priya Khundi (Sunavi Ramanathan), and a black attorney Darryl Barnes (Ato Blanken-Wood)—as well as Feinberg himself—conducting in-depth interviews with families, gauging what they want on a human and personal level.

Individual cases are highlighted, especially Feinberg’s involvement with the Donato family, one of whom—a firefighter—has left a bereft wife Karen (Laura Benanti) and three young boys, with the added complexity of a cynical Frank Donato, brother of the departed and a firefighter survivor.

Also featured is Biro’s ongoing involvement with the  Schultz family, whose dead son’s gayness has been denied by his parents and whose partner Oliver (Clifton Samuels) seeks compensation that cannot be granted by his home state. Each case is resolved in dramatic ways, as the Donatos come to learn of additional children left behind by Frank’s brother, and as Biros (a shattered Amy Ryan) makes a heart-wrenching phone call to Oliver.

To make the process more problematic, a team of lawyers, headed by corporate advocate Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), insists that the employees of major businesses housed in the twin towers, as greater earners, deserve a significantly larger portion of the Fund. As the deadline of December 2003 looms, the collective efforts of the Feinberg team, as well as a more sympathetic Wolf, gather steam towards a possible solution.

The film, directed by Sara Coangelo and written by Max Bernstein, plays out this scenario in a no-nonsense manner, though the context of 9/11 and its victims creates enough built-in tension to keep the drama compelling. It produces its own kind of mournful momentum.

Keaton and Ryan are under-toned and earnest, as befits the grinding work they are doing, and Keaton has more to do, since he has to show a transformation from a “just-the-facts”  decider to a more compassionate advocate for his clients. Tucci, though a contrary activist, acts as the civil figure of reason (he and Feinberg bond over opera). There are a passel of good featured performances, none better than Benanti’s Karen, the working-class housewife who tearfully acknowledges the impossible task Feinberg and Company had taken on.

Emilia Jones stars as Ruby Rossi in “CODA.” Photo courtesy of Apple TV +

CODA
The Rossi family is a tight-knit fishing family in Glouchester, Massachusetts. Mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), dad Frank (Troy Kutsur), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) work alongside Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of the group. The family is very loving and close, but Ruby alone has the opportunity to live and develop in the hearing world. A lover of music, she has joined the senior class choir and is noticed for her clear voice by the choir director, the acerbic Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who pushes her to reach her full potential. He deems her talented enough to try out for a scholarship to the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston (The film is rated PG-13 and runs 111 minutes and is available in theaters and streaming).

That’s the set-up for “CODA” (Child of Deaf Parents). Can Ruby, who has no world outside her family, go out on her own, away from loved ones who totally depend on her? This dependence is made evident when we see the family, fishing without her, where the local Coast Guard cannot communicate with the boat and assumes they are in danger. The Guard warns the Rossis that, for their safety, they must be accompanied by a hearing person to be aware of risks and dangers. How Ruby navigates her dilemma is the crux of the narrative.

Filmed on location in Glouchester, the film brims with authentic fishing scenes as well as Rossi family life and spirit (the three deaf actors in the film are all actually deaf, while Emilia Jones studied nine months to attain signing competence). They are all first-rate and play off each other with wit and intelligence (the four won an award for Best Ensemble in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the movie also won the Grand Jury Prize). Matlin, who broke through with her first role (in “Children of a Lesser God” in 1966) is a bright and randy figure, along with Kutsur, the family comedian. Durant’s character has a tart presence and harbors some resentment of his bright sister.

Besides the family foursome, the film is aided considerably by supporting performances from Mexican actor Derbez as choir director Mr. V, and Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) as Ruby’s love interest and fellow chorister. Young American writer/director Sian Heder composes their story masterfully, with a wonderful balance between the actors and a clear delineation of their differing—and contending—personalities.

Most effecting of all is a scene when Ruby, auditioning for the program at Berklee, offers her solo rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She begins  tentatively, but, seeing her family (who has snuck into the balcony of an almost empty theater), she gradually starts fully signing the number as her voice rises, communicating to her deaf family the only way she knows, with graceful hand and body movements, playing to them as much as to her three-judge panel. Thrilling.

Watch for this one to earn accolades during awards season.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.