Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 12th, 2021
CODA (Sian Heder, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Children of deaf adults, or CODAs, are hearing progeny of deaf parents. As such, they straddle two worlds, learning both sign language and spoken speech. The protagonist of writer/director Sian Heder’s new film is Ruby (Emilia Jones, Nuclear), a CODA on the brink of becoming an adult, herself. In her senior year of high school, she goes out every morning on the family boat with her father and brother (also deaf) as they ply the waters off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, looking for a dwindling supply of fish for which they receive less and less money each year. She’s their liaison to the hearing world, helping to negotiate the sale of the catch, but she might have a different idea of what her future looks like than this. Take away the deafness, and it’s a fairly standard coming-of-age story about a working-class kid struggling to break free from family and go out on her own. Still, just because we have seen films like this before doesn’t mean we’ve often seen something quite so finely realized. Both familiar and novel, CODA is an enchanting work of cinematic art.
Though neither Heder (Tallulah) nor Jones are CODAs in real life, the film gains authenticity from the presence of three deaf actors as Ruby’s mom, dad and brother: Marlee Matlin (Entangled), Troy Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) and Daniel Durant. Jones appears to have worked very hard to be comfortable with American Sign Language, and the family unit of four feels very cohesive. They’re a fun bunch, the parents still hot for each other and obsessed with sex (a yeast infection notwithstanding), and big brother a bit of a heartthrob, according to Ruby’s best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth, We Summon the Darkness), anyway, who suddenly decides she likes him, much to Ruby’s dismay. The real drama of the narrative, however, emerges once Ruby joins the school choir, initially because a boy on whom she has long had a crush is in it, but then later because she loves singing. This is obviously something in which her family cannot share, and since they have heretofore done everything together, there is potential conflict ahead.
Ruby has lingering PTSD from her early school days, when she was bullied because she “talked funny” (i.e., like a deaf person), and though she is a dead ringer for a young Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is still something of a social outcast. Nevertheless, she persists with choir, where her initially imperious director, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez, Dora and the Lost City of Gold), proves far gentler once he realizes her potential and sees her pain. He pairs her with her crush, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Sing Street), for an end-of-year duet, forcing her to at least confront that particular fear. Bernardo also offers to prepare her for an audition to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, though that would mean abandoning her family, should she get in. And now that they are finally working to develop their own fish-market co-op so they can keep more profits, they need her more than ever. What is she to do?
It’s a tribute to Heder’s nuanced script and direction that everyone’s point of view is heard and felt here. No one is a caricature, and all have something to contribute. Though she sometimes defaults to excessive sentiment and/or montages, Heder has the overall right instincts for the film, leavening the heavier emotions with ample humor. The cast is superlative. Matlin is a known quantity, and she is, as always, terrific, but so are Kotsur, Durant and the rest. CODA really belongs most to Jones, however, as it should, and she ably carries the weight of it on her young shoulders, singing beautifully, to boot. The ending is not a surprise, but how it is delivered catches us off guard, in the best way possible. Music is not only for the hearing, as we discover, and love is truly all you need.