Coming-of-age movies are often effective, but their stories tend to travel the exact same route. A young person who doubts him or herself finds someone who believes in them or inspires them, comes out of their shell, and finds a way to succeed in the short term, thus starting their dream. The formula has been done so many times because it works, but for a film to rise above the clichés, it needs to have a great hook.
CODA is the type of film that has that extra something special. The title is not the word “coda” but rather an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. Ruby (Emilia Jones), daughter of Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and sister of Leo (Daniel Durant), is the only hearing member of her family. Frank and Leo own a fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Ruby works on the boat when she’s not going to school.
A senior in high school, Ruby finally decides to pursue her love of singing, joining the choir led by Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). Her decision is partly based on the presence of Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a boy on whom she has a crush, but it’s mostly an attempt to have something to call her own after living her life as the interpreter for her family.
Written and directed by Sian Heder, the film’s main focus is Ruby, but it doesn’t give short shrift to her family. They are a true unit, supporting each other, driving each other crazy, and always coming back together at the end of the day to eat dinner. Each family member gets showcased at different points, whether it’s the apparently insatiable sex drive of Frank and Jackie, or Leo’s desire to be seen as someone who can run the family business.
Heder makes sure to note how both Ruby and her deaf family are isolated. Ruby, despite her ability to use sign language, finds it hard to communicate her feelings with her family, even on simple things like how loud they are. The family, meanwhile, has come to rely on Ruby to be their go-between to the hearing world, and they struggle somewhat whenever she is not around.
While Heder does a good job at establishing the various relationships in the film, it’s interesting how much she relies on music to amp up the emotions. Ruby’s choir, or more likely Mr. Villalobos, seems to be obsessed with older R&B/funk/soul music, eschewing any modern material for songs like “Let’s Get It On,” “It’s Your Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” The relationships and the music come to a head in the final act, providing a series of moments where only the most hardened soul won’t shed a tear or 10.
The film is based on the 2014 French comedy/drama La Famille Bélier, which was criticized for, among other things, using hearing actors as the two deaf parents. This film does not have that issue, with Oscar winner Matlin, Kotsur, and Durant being long-established deaf actors. The depth they bring to their roles is immeasurable, and the chemistry they and Jones share is fantastic. Not one false note is struck in their scenes, although ones involving typical high school stuff or other conversations Ruby has aren’t always as successful.
One can easily see the 19-year-old Jones becoming the next big thing. Already the star of the Netflix show Locke & Key, she oozes warmth and compassion, and the native of London nails the American accent. Opportunities for deaf actors are unfortunately not as prevalent, but each of the trio, especially Kotsur, do notable work here and deserve to be seen more. Derbez puts in his best English-language work yet, dialing down his over-the-top nature to portray an empathetic teacher.
CODA presents the traditional story of a young person finding herself couched in a non-traditional setting, and it makes the most of that combination. It’s impossible not to root for Ruby and her family, particularly because their unique dynamic is demonstrated so well.
CODA is showing in select theaters and is available to stream exclusively on Apple TV+.