How do you tell a compelling coming-of-age story that marches to a different drummer and takes a fresh approach to the genre? Writer/director Sian Heder’s CODA provides the answer to that question, delivering a unique coming-of-age tale featuring a marginalized community not commonly seen in films. CODA, which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults,” forges a new path by telling an engrossing story of a teen attempting to make it through high school while also addressing complex issues.
High school senior Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only Rossi who can hear, is her family’s lifeline to the world. In addition to translating for mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), dad Frank (Troy Kotsur), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant), Ruby dutifully rises each morning at the ungodly hour of 3am to work alongside her dad and older brother on the family’s fishing boat.
Rules dictate the boat must have a hearing person on board due to safety issues, and Ruby’s spent her formative years handling her fishing duties – including haggling over fish prices – before heading to school. It’s a living, but the family barely makes ends meet.
With such an exhausting schedule, Ruby doesn’t always have a chance to shower before class which does nothing to help combat her status as an outcast. Bullied as a child because of her family’s deafness and their lower-class status, Ruby’s just counting down the days until she can leave school behind. She gets by but doesn’t care about school or her peers, other than her ride-or-die BFF, Gertie (Amy Forsyth).
Although she’s indifferent to school and rarely contributes in class, she loves to sing and makes a spur of the moment decision to join the school’s choir. She needs the credits and overhears hunky classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) signing up so she does so, too.
After a rocky start that finds Ruby fleeing the choir room in a fit of nerves, choirmaster Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) selects Ruby to be Miles’ duet partner. It turns out Ruby’s got a beautiful voice but lacks self-confidence. Fortunately, Mr. Villalobos knows when he’s in the presence of a diamond in the rough, a student with raw talent who needs extra encouragement and training.
Joining the choir and attending late afternoon one-on-one sessions with Mr. Villalobos means Ruby needs to limit the time she spends on the boat. It also means she’s no longer at her family’s beck and call when they need her translating skills. Jackie feels Ruby’s desire to sing is an affront to the family, an overt act of rebellion because they can’t hear.
As the prospect of attending a prestigious music college looms, Ruby’s forced into the difficult position of having to choose between her parents’ expectations for her future and striking out on her own to follow her dreams.
Writer/director Sian Heder’s CODA is alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking. Heder’s decision to hire actors who are deaf – Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant – in three of the lead roles was absolutely the right choice, not only because representation matters but also because they’re first-class actors. The audience needs to embrace the family at the heart of the story, and the chemistry’s incredibly strong between Matlin, Kotsur, Durant, and Emilia Jones, which makes it easy to believe their bond’s real.
The Rossis aren’t a dysfunctional family struggling to connect with each other. In a refreshing twist, Heder’s written the parents as deeply in love after dozens of years of marriage and still unable to keep their hands off each other. The parents obviously love and support their kids, and the siblings may fight but are also fiercely protective of each other. It’s a breath of fresh air to not have to sit through another film loaded with characters who can’t stand to be in each other’s presence.
Heder’s script incorporates a variety of important issues, including disability awareness and bullying, but does so with a light touch. There’s an authenticity and realness to these characters brought about by a combination of terrific acting and an outstanding script.
In an absolutely stunning scene – quite possibly one of the best scenes in a 2021 release – Ruby is asked by choirmaster Mr. Villalobos to describe how she feels when she sings. Emilia Jones as Ruby delivers a passionate, emotionally heart-wrenching answer in ASL (American Sign Language). Not a word is spoken yet the vulnerability and honesty on display is breathtaking. That level of brilliance in both acting and writing are present throughout the two hour drama.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for drug use, strong sexual content, and language
Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Release Date: August 13, 2021 in theaters and on Apple TV+