Ruby Rossi, the titular “child of deaf adults” in Sian Heder’s new film, CODA, lives a split life. Early in the morning, she works on her family’s fishing boat, sorting freshly caught haddock from the boots that get caught in their nets and, as the only hearing member of the Rossis, helps translate sign language to vendors on shore. Then she goes to school, often so tired that she falls asleep at her desk, to the astonishment of her teachers. When shaken awake, she draws a startled “What’s going on?” to no one in particular, her head still in the world she just left.
Heder wrote and directed CODA, a remake of a hit French movie, and her most signature touches as a storyteller come in small, astute observations. Yes, you can put cheesy labels on this film: it’s a feel-good story, an inspiring work full of tears, emotional breakthroughs and a touch of sly humor. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, generating enough buzz to be acquired by Apple TV+ for a record amount. So it’s coming to streaming this weekend, saddled with quite a bit of hype for a small indie movie. However, CODA is insightful and moving enough to be worth all the fuss.
While Heder’s debut film, Tallulah, was interesting if overwrought, CODA finds the right balance between melodrama and everyday details. The central conflict is that Ruby (played by Emilia Jones), her family’s conduit to the hearing world, discovers a passion for singing – an art form with which the other Rossis can’t quite connect. Heder’s script doesn’t turn Ruby’s realization into a dark dilemma that threatens to tear the family apart. The writer simply wants to explore how the power of a community can cut both ways: Ruby’s family provides irreplaceable comfort, while at times (as if accidentally) limiting her ability to plant her feet in the wider world.
Mostly, Ruby joins her high school choir to impress a boy she has a crush on. When imperious singing teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) asks her to sing in front of his class, she flees, remembering the times she was tormented by students for thinking she was “talking funny.” CODAThe pivotal moment comes in a scene where the charismatic instructor finally unlocks Ruby’s talent by encouraging her to scream, not at her joy but at her anger, finally letting her channel her frustrations through art.
CODA avoids sinking into the viscous territory of many inspiring films; Ruby has no specific problem to solve, and singing is not a magical solution to her problems. Heder knows there’s enough drama in portraying the nuances that Ruby has to navigate, and to make every character around her feel like they’re the furthest from a stereotype. Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actor to win an Oscar, unsurprisingly does a solid job as Ruby’s mother, Jackie; the lesser-known Troy Kotsur is a revelation as her father, Frank, a bearded growl whose affection for his daughter runs deep. Derbez, a comedic actor who is one of Mexico’s most famous movie stars, gives a live wire performance that doesn’t feel cartoonish — Bernardo is just there to help Ruby tap into her impulsive side.
Heder takes the realistic suspense from these rich characters bouncing off each other as personal drama and workplace annoyances mount, to the predictable yet satisfying final act—a concert set piece that is likely to suffocate the most cynical viewer. CODA is both in theaters and available on streaming to Apple TV+ subscribers, making it widely available in homes. But despite its small scale, it’s a great cinematic experience, masterfully using sound (and sometimes the absence of it) to convey the details of Ruby’s relationship with her family and the gap between their appreciation of music. CODA‘s power would be dulled in any other medium.
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