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 GertieWritten and directed by Sian Heder
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
are superlative, to say the least, and help anchor CODA through and
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
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.
That was money well spent.
If I could hug a movie, then I'd definitely hug CODA.