A film review by Craig J. Koban August 24, 2021

CODA jjj
½ 

2021, PG-13, 112 mins.

Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi  /  Eugenio Derbez as Bernardo Villalobos  /  Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi  /  Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Miles  /  Daniel Durant as Leo Rossi  /  Marlee Matlin as Jackie Rossi  /  Amy Forsyth as Gertie

Written and directed by Sian Heder

ORIGINAL FILM

When I finished watching the new Apple TV+ original movie CODA I was quite convinced that I've seen its story told - in one form or another - countless times before: 

A young and talented teenage girl trapped in a small town with lofty educational/career ambitions, but feels trapped by her responsibilities to her eccentric and tightly knit family unit to keep their heads financially above water.  Also thrown in: The quirky, but no-nonsense and tough talky teacher/mentor, an unattainable hunky young male love interest that might just be attainable, and, of course, the make or break final audition for the heroine that might spell freedom or failure.  

All of this sounds achingly familiar in CODA, but it's the viewfinder that writer/director Sian Heder uses to look into this genre - and her presentation of the family unit in question - that helps to separate itself successfully apart from extremely crowed pack. 

CODA is code for "child of deaf adults."  The adolescent in this film's case was born with hearing, but everyone else in her family (including her parents and older brother) are hearing impaired.  Ruby, as played in a career making and Oscar worthy performance by Emilia Jones, has spent her entire lifetime navigating through the sometimes stressful minefield of acting as an interpreter for her clan in the larger social world.  She loves them all dearly and is fiercely loyal to their needs, but when her angelic music voice begins to lead towards a promising future outside of her small fishing community then she develops a crisis of conscience: stay with her family or leave them to peruse her dream.  Again, the DNA of past films (too numerous to contemplate) stick out when thinking about CODA, but the subtle genius of the film is how tweaks clichés and conventions with its intimate character focus.  And like last year's brilliant SOUND OF METAL, Heder's film serves as a rallying cry for inclusiveness and understanding of the deaf community in feature films: The more one becomes immersed in CODA's story the less it becomes about deaf people; it becomes a touching and authentically drawn portrait of family strife and love.  Making these deaf characters as relatable as any other hearing enable family is this film's masterstroke. 

But, boy oh boy, does the 17-year-old Ruby have a lot on her plate as far as teenagers go.  When not attending high school at her cosy and away from everyone and everything coastal town, she wakes up at ungodly hours of the morning to help her father and brother with catching and selling fish...and all before the sound of the morning school bell announcing the start of the academic day.  While her mother in Jackie (Marlee Matlin) stays home to do the family business books, her father (a wonderful Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) do the grunt work at sea.  As the only member of her family that's not deaf, Ruby is a vital addition to their fishing expedition team when it comes to manning the radio, hearing any dangers that could come their way, and helping with the physical rigors of catching aquatic life to sell back on shore.  Oh, and she also serves as a liaison between her father and sibling and the unscrupulous buyers, whom she thinks is royally ripping off their family with their meager payouts.  I neglected to mention that Ruby is fully fluent in ASL (something that Jones spent months on before filming to master, and she never misses a beat here). 

 

 

By the time Ruby makes it to school at 9 am she essentially has had a full and grueling work day, much to the chagrin of her teachers.  She also has to face an onslaught of petty bullying from fellow classmates that belittle her hearing impaired family.  She does have her sights on a cute classmate in Miles (SING STREET's terrific Ferdia Walsh Peelo), who seems musically inclined, which leads to her joining the high school choir.  But Ruby doesn't just join because of a crush: she's actually a bona fide musical talent with a voice that she just needs to get out and be heard.  Unfortunately, she's painfully shy and introverted, but her music teacher in Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Debez) sees limitless potential in her and tries as he can to nurture her natural abilities and swing for the fences to attain a musical scholarship to attend a prestigious big city school.  Inconveniently, though, as this is happening her family is trying to make a serious go of cutting out the middle man in the fishing business and sell the fish themselves to eager buyers, which requires Ruby's constant attention and aid.  Predictably, tensions flare between all parties. 

It should be noted that CODA is an American remake of the 2014 French film LA FAMILLE BELIER, with a few major changes.  Outside of the geographical shift from France to Glouchester, Massachusetts, all of the deaf family members here are played by deaf actors (something that wasn't present in the original).  Matlin herself - an Oscar winning deaf actress - threatened to quite CODA during the developmental process when financiers were insistent that the production hire non-deaf actors to play the other family members.  Thankfully, cooler creative heads prevailed, and CODA is so much better off for it on a level of dramatic (and comedic) immediacy and veracity.  Within the first few moments of the film you gain an instant sense of the history of this family unit and all of their grounded and lived in details of not only their unique home lives, but also their collective time in the water and working through the anxieties of keeping their business afloat.  So, in many respects, CODA is a three for the price of one coming of age dramedy: We get intimate details of not only the microcosm of life in a deaf family, but also a portal into the problematic working class fishing world of Massachusetts, and then on top of that we're served up an uplifting and genuinely inspirational tale of an underdog finding herself and attempting to come out of her shell.  Heder homogenizes all of these seemingly divergent focal points with thankless symmetry.   

More important is that the director makes this family feel so real throughout.  They're like any other family struggling to make ends meet, hearing impaired or not.  Their individual daily grind and personal battles are intrinsically their own, to be sure, but Ruby's clan suffers from many of the same insecurities and uncertainties as so many others, and despite their troubles and stresses they remain devotedly in synch.  I appreciated how CODA is not afraid to pepper the film with moments of sly comedy as well (this is a very funny movie), like, for example, a trip to the doctor that has Ruby serving as an interpreter to the doctor to relay the specifics of jock itch to them (she jokingly tells them that the doctor has instructed them to never have sex again, which hilariously freaks out Frank and Jackie, seeing as they have a rancorous appetite for intercourse at just about any moment of the day).  Heder isn't making fun of these characters or their condition.  Let that be clear.  She's trying to present their foibles in a relevant and empathetic light.   

The performances are superlative, to say the least, and help anchor CODA through and through.  Matlin once again demonstrates why she won that Academy Award all those years ago, and her interplay with Kostur (both giving nearly wordless performances) does a miraculous job of embellishing these characters and making them come across as a completely believable and passionately in love husband and wife tandem (Kotsur himself gives the cheekiest performance as the rascally troublemaking paternal figure, scoring some of the film's best laughs).  But CODA belongs to Emilia Jones and her triumphant work as Ruby.  Not only does she have to - at every waking moment of the story - seem like a master of ASL and be able to effectively communicate with her co-stars with absolute realism, but she also has to portray a troubled teenager that's being thrown into a dicey rabbit hole of family responsibilities versus a commitment to doing what's best for herself.  Thankfully, CODA never picks sides in this thorny conundrum, because the film makes Judy and her family members so immeasurably likeable that you simply don't want to see any of them fail in their endeavors.  High schoolers have a lot of emotional weight on their shoulders, but Ruby's burden to carry seems especially taxing, and Jones communicates this all in her sensationally textured performance.   

CODA's greatness lies in not presenting Ruby and her family as victims requiring our pity.  It's a film that asks for our empathy for these characters and requires us to walk in their shoes for nearly two hours.  There are two superb moments that cement this, the first being the obligatory "big audition" scene when Ruby has to show her family and the powers that be at the school she wishes to attend why she deserves a shot.  In a bold move, Heder drops out all of the sound and plays things in silence, letting us into the headspaces of the family members.  They can't hear the singing, but they experience the passion that Ruby brings on stage.  Secondly, and without giving anything away, CODA ends on a pitch perfect shot involving one ASL gesture that cuts to the core how this family feels for one another in ways that stale dialogue would never similarly accomplish.  Is it manipulative?  Sure.  But these characters are so sweet and heartfelt that it utterly earns its warm moments of audience pleasing payoffs.  You can read the scripting blueprint of where CODA is heading pretty much from the get-go, but Heder elevates her work above such contrivances by allowing for us to understand and become deeply moved by a specific family dynamic and world that's never been given much proper treatment in movies before.  By the end of it one can easily understand why CODA was an audience darling at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.  A mere two days after the film opened there Apple purchased the rights to it for a cool $25 million.  

That was money well spent.  

If I could hug a movie, then I'd definitely hug CODA. 

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