Every family has its own language.
Siân Heder’s CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) is a charming version of a familiar coming of age tale. No wheels are reinvented in the story, which the audience will easily be across. A young woman has to learn to balance her own desires and independence in the face of a difficult choice to stay with her family, who rely on her as the only hearing member of their unit.
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a senior in small-town Massachusetts. At 3 AM every day, she joins her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on their fishing boat in Gloucester to bring in the morning catch and negotiate the sales price with the local buyers. Because Ruby is hearing, she can interpret her family’s sign language to the wider community; what there is of it as the Rossis seem to have either chosen isolation or had that choice foisted upon them because of their deafness.
After her morning work, Ruby attends school, where she is bullied for stinking of fish and also because of the lingering prejudice about her family. Ruby isn’t presented in any manner as extraordinary until she joins the school choir run by Bernardo Villalobos or Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), who, after a false start, realizes that Ruby can truly sing. Mr. V takes a special interest in Ruby and fellow classmate (and Ruby’s crush) Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and pairs them for a duet to be performed at the end-of-year concert. Mr. V also notes that Ruby’s talent is enough to take her to the Berklee School in Boston for college and offers her after-school training to prepare her for her audition.
Complicating Ruby’s trajectory towards college is the fact that her family’s business can only run if they have someone hearing on the boat. Increased regulations are weighing upon the working class Rossis. Without someone who can both hear and interpret sign language, the outcome will be that they will lose their fishing license and be forced to give up a generational business. They can’t afford to find anyone to fill Ruby’s position, and it appears as if Ruby will have to give up her dreams of a career in music to literally keep her family afloat.
An English-language remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, directed by Éric Lartigau, CODA’s setup is very run-of-the-mill. Heder basically follows the blueprint and tropes laid out by Lartigau and allows them to be just that. However, what makes CODA excellent sits in how she works these ideas and, more so, how she allows her actors to fully inhabit their characters with wit, verve, and more than a little heart. The Rossi family is bold and chaotic in their home. The fluidity of their sign language is expressive and, at times, hilarious. In choosing to work with deaf actors in the roles of Frank, Leo, and their mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), Heder creates characters that are not only authentic but also expressive in a way that hearing actors in their place could not be. One particular scene where this is evident is when Miles comes to practice the duet with Ruby at her house. Frank’s sign language trying to convince Miles to wear a condom if he’s having sex with Ruby is humorous and cringe-inducing all at once. It barely needs captioning, and as later scenes show, Miles is well aware of exactly what is being said.
Performances are key in CODA, and without the extraordinary lead turn by British actor Emilia Jones, Locke & Key (2020), as the conflicted Ruby, the film would not be nearly as heartfelt. Jones embodies an ordinary teen trying to do her best to please everyone around her but failing to find the balance in a situation that seems impossible to someone of her age. Alongside Jones are the fine performances of Durant, Matlin, and especially Troy Kotsur. As Frank, the patriarch of the Rossi clan, he is by turns funny and heartbreaking. In a film filled with gestures, some of his are the most memorable. Matlin is also devastating in a later scene where she discusses with Ruby her fears of having a hearing child. Daniel Durant is more than believable as the frustrated Leo who feels sidelined not only by the hearing community but also his own family, who have taken to relying so heavily on Ruby that his place as the elder sibling seems insignificant.
Representing people with disabilities on screen is essential but also fraught with so many possible pitfalls because the representation can be seen as tokenism at best or offensive at worst. By taking a small story and building the meat around it with the absolute love the characters have for each other, Heder has avoided falling into any traps. The Rossis are a warm and wonderful family whose devotion to each other is reiterated by other characters being jealous of the bonds the family has. If the Rossis are extraordinary, it isn’t because they’re deaf, it is because they are a unit in a world where so many families are less than united.
CODA is a delight, a warm hug of a film that knows its genre and makes the very most of it. Siân Heder’s script is simple, and the message that she sends is heartfelt. A crowd-pleaser with love to spare.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney