Synopsis – As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents.
My Take – Ever since its premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this family comedy drama, whose title is an acronym for child of deaf adults, has been receiving rave reviews from all over, mainly for its portrayal of deaf characters, their challenges of growing up culturally, its rare embrace of ASL (American Sign Language) and its showcase of how deaf people look beyond disabilities to recognize that life’s hardships, whether in a world full of sound or not.
Directed and written by Sian Heder (Tallulah), the film is an American remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, but with a major difference, the deaf characters are played by deaf actors. And rather than speech being prioritized for hearing audiences, the actors here sign and are subtitled, and the language is allowed to breathe in a way that’s moving, often funny, and very effective.
Without a doubt the film is spot on feel good material. It’s musically pleasing, dramatic when it needs to be and universal in its appeal. But most importantly, the film, which was acquired by Apple at a festival-record $25 million, is so well-meaning that criticizing even little aspects of it feels wrong.
Each performance breathes life and nuance into what could easily have been a misfire, instead, the film captures the heart, soul, and depth, while also offering an empathetic view from every perspective of their main characters, resulting in something that is tremendously sweet, uproariously funny and one of the best crowd pleasing films of the year.
The story follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a Child of Deaf Adults, who is in her last year of high school. But unlike most of her fellow students, she doesn’t have much of a plan beyond graduation, because she assumes she’s going to continue to try saving the family fishing business, working with her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and her also deaf brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), on the family fishing boat out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and her mom, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), translating whenever necessary.
But after catching the eye of the firebrand music teacher Bernardo Villalobos aka Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) during a show-choir audition, which she initially joined just to catch the eye of her crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), Ruby begins to sees her future in vocal training at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which also means a life away from her family.
Yes, in its broad outlines, this is a cheerfully familiar story in many respects. A young person, from an unlikely background, has a slow glowing dream that her fear seems to hide deep inside her mind. Lots of obstacles present themselves, both within and without, but they has an inspirational teacher who believes in them. A new relationship also begins, forcing the protagonist to question about life beyond the family they defend fiercely and sometimes resent. It’s a predictable piece in structure that’s sharp in execution, and that’s so inventive and fresh in some of its particulars that it almost disguises the most conventional story beats.
But despite this flaw, director Sian Heder attempts to do good by delving into an honest portrayal of the complexities of a deaf household.
Here, the fundamental conflict for Ruby is the disruption it would cause in her family for her to leave. She’s been her parents’ interpreter since she was a child, and she feels responsible for things like making sure her father isn’t cheated when he sells his fish at the end of every day. Her mother especially wonders what they would do without her to act as a bridge to the local community, which seems to have made no effort at all, either socially or in business terms, to communicate with them.
This weighs on her parents, weighs on Ruby, without any alternative. Add to that the growing intensity of her Berklee audition rehearsals and a blossoming relationship with her fellow choir mate, Miles.
And as much is a film about a hearing person’s relationship to deafness and Deaf culture, it’s just as much about deaf characters’ relationships to a hearing world, whose norms most hearing people take for granted, and whose obstacles can impact everything from labor to self-worth, making us realize how much we rely on hearing for simple tasks.
It also helps that the film treats sign language, which makes up half the dialogue, as an actual language. Like any dialect, ASL has its own ebb and flow along with its own cultural hallmarks, rather than being a series of lurching, desperate gestures, as is sometimes the case when deaf characters are played by hearing performers who treat the language itself as a hurdle or disability.
Something which was exceptionally capitalized in the final act when Ruby sings the Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now,” at her audition and uses sign language so her parents and her brother can understand what she is singing. The emotion found in this scene is undeniably powerful.
It’s a strong film in many regards, but the success of the film is a testament to its remarkable cast. English actress Emilia Jones, who apparently learned to sign, sing, and put on an American accent for the role, holds the film together with an astonishing breakout performance. She is able to play more than one emotion at a time and suggests a whole life of experience within this family.
As her parents, Marlee Matlin turns in an incredibly fun performance that conceals layers of maternal anxieties, while Troy Kostur is a firecracker as Frank, delivering line after line of raunchy, hilarious banter with animated fervor, though he lets the character’s warmth peak out from beneath his zany antics. Daniel Durant exceptionally sells his withheld-but-caring twenty year old who doesn’t want to babysit-ted due to his disability.
In supporting roles, Amy Forsyth and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo are likable, while Eugenio Derbez, probably the most known member of the cast, deftly avoids falling into the cliché of the tough but tender mentor. On the whole, ‘CODA’ is a quirky, compelling and heartwarming comedy drama with a unique voice.
Directed – Sian Heder
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 111 minutes