I’ve been anticipating CODA since it’s triumphant premiere at Sundance earlier this year. The title refers to Child of Deaf Adults and it centers on a high school teen Ruby (Emilia Jones, phenomenal), the only hearing member of the Rossi family. Ever since she was a kid she’s been serving as the interpreter for the family in Gloucester, Massachusetts where they run a fishing business.
Right from its opening scene of her on a boat with her brother and father, I immediately sympathize with Ruby who looks wiser beyond her 17-year existence she lived pretty much with her family. What her brother and parents don’t realize, which is totally understandable, is that Ruby loves to sing. She sings while she’s on a boat fishing and she later joins the choir club at school. Despite Ruby’s initial shyness where she bolted out of her first class, soon her choirmaster/music teacher Bernardo Villalobos aka Mr. V (a vivacious Eugenio Derbez) discovers she’s got a really good voice. So good in fact that he selects her and a fellow pupil Miles (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to do a duet for the choir event and even offers to train her for the Berklee College of Music. The more music becomes a bigger part of Ruby’s life, the more she is torn between pursuing her passion and her duty for her family.
Writer/director Sian Heder sets up the world building of Ruby’s world so wonderfully. I really appreciate her portrayal of the deaf individuals in the way that they don’t see themselves as disabled. They just live their lives differently from the hearing folks but it doesn’t mean their lives are less fulfilling. There’s a moment where Miles remarks admirably about Ruby’s family in that she has a house that feels like home and parents who love each other. Despite their hardship and facing all kinds of business challenges, the Rossis face their struggles together as a family should be. It’s perhaps one of the loveliest portrayal of an American family that feels organic and authentic.
It’s a credible glimpse into a life I’m not familiar with, told from the perspective of a young woman who’s just coming into her own. There’s a scene between Ruby and Mr. V where she said that she’s never done anything without her family before which I find so genuinely moving. There’s something so earnest and matter of fact about how Ruby approaches things that I find so endearing, even inspiring. I think teenagers often get a bad rap in the way they’re portrayed in the movies, that they’re lazy, entitled and clueless. Well, let’s just say Ruby isn’t your typical teenager and she leads a pretty tough life as a young girl, balancing school and her family business, even waking up at 3 am daily to go fishing.
I’m glad Heder cast actual deaf actors to make up Ruby’s family. Troy Kotsur is especially delightful and hilarious as Ruby’s dad Frank, providing such comic relief with his intensely-elaborate ASL signing. Marlee Matlin is quite a revelation in a role as a working-class wife Jackie with an unabashedly sexual relationship with her husband. Daniel Durant also has some memorably defiant moment as Ruby’s brother Leo. Walsh-Peelo didn’t get as much to do here as he did in Sing Street, but he’s got a sweet presence as Ruby’s boyfriend.
Derbez is absolutely fun to watch as Mr. V who balances his enthusiasm for Ruby’s talent with some tough love. I wish I had a teacher half as fun and supportive as him. Now, the star of the show is definitely Emilia Jones who I found out after watching the movie is a Brit!! I was totally floored by her performance, not only does she have to master an American accent, she also has to learn ASL for the film. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance and I hope she won’t get forgotten come award season.
I’ve since learned that CODA is actually an English-language remake of the 2014 French-language film La Famille Bélier. Apparently the French film producer himself approached Heder to direct the remake but wishes that she makes the film unique for the American audiences. Well, Heder certainly did an astonishing job reinventing the story and making it her own. The pacing and the way she structures the story works really well in that it immediately immerses you in the character’s journey. The sound design is fantastic as well, I especially love how the sound is completely turned off during the duet scene as the camera pans to Rossi’s family watching her perform… putting us in their shoes so to speak where they can’t hear anything during that segment is powerful and deeply moving.
Heder also peppers the film with plenty of memorable moments I know I’ll remember for years to come, such as the tender moment Ruby and her dad share sitting on their truck under the stars following the choir. Frank asks her daughter to sing and he holds her neck to ‘hear’ the vibration as she sings to him. It’s a genuinely sweet father/daughter moment that also bridges the gap between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf.
I’m not surprised Apple snatched the film at Sundance for a festival-record $25 million. I sure hope Sian Heder continues to get prominent work in Hollywood and that there’ll be more opportunities for deaf talents in the industry.
CODA is released on AppleTV+ on August 13.