This review of “CODA” was first published on January 31, 2021 after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival
It’s probably unfair to review the Sundance movie “CODA” in the context of the $25 million deal it made with Apple mid-festival, a record-breaking sale that places enormous expectations on Sian Heder’s gentle family drama. But it’s also inescapable that that kind of money will put pressure on “CODA” to be both an indie landmark and a commercial breakthrough rather than what it really is — a sweet, openhearted coming-of-age story that succeeds in spite of its own predictability.
Heder’s film is modest but thoroughly satisfying, corny but effective, never edgy and always likable. As Sundance dramas go, it dispenses with the indie quirks and idiosyncrasies to focus on a heartwarming story performed by gifted actors; it’s a tear-jerker, to be sure, but you won’t be annoyed at it for jerking those tears.
And at a time when the film industry is focused on inclusion and diversity, it is a landmark in the way it places a trio of deaf characters at the center of the story and has them played by deaf actors, who are so eloquent in their ASL that we barely need subtitles or other characters to translate. We’ve seen how good Marlee Matlin is on screen, though not nearly as often as we should — but where have the roles been for Troy Kotsur, a treasure as Matlin’s gloriously profane husband, or Daniel Durant, who plays their son?
Based on the 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” “CODA” gets its title from the acronym for Children of Deaf Adults. That’s what Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is, the only hearing person in her family. She’s a self-possessed, assertive but frustrated young woman when she’s with her family, particularly on the fishing boat, where her father and brother make a living — but as a child who was bullied after growing up with ASL as a first language, she’s withdrawn and timid in school. In a way, she’s isolated from her family because she can hear, and from her classmates because of her family.
She joins the school choir on a whim, seemingly because she overhears Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the boy she has a crush on, do so. And even though she runs out of the room the first time she’s asked to sing solo, she turns out to have a remarkable voice. (She immediately becomes so passionate about singing that it’s hard to believe it took Miles to get her into the choir.)
While much of the story is told in silence through expressive gestures, Heder also shows a great touch for the music in Ruby’s life. She listens to the astounding outsider artistry of the Shaggs at home, wakes up at 3 a.m. to go fishing to the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” and sings sultry Marvin Gaye songs at school — “Let’s Get It On” when we learn just what a great voice she has, and “You’re All I Need to Get By” in a duet with Miles, whose own 1981-era King Crimson shirt suggests he has interesting taste as well.
From early in the film, it’s clear that the story will come down to the conflict between Ruby’s need to be there for her family and her desire to live her own life and pursue her own dreams of a life in music. (With the help of an acerbic teacher played by Eugenio Derbez as part comic relief, part caring mentor, she transitions awfully quickly from being too shy to sing “Happy Birthday” to auditioning for the Berklee College of Music.)
Ruby’s devotion to singing doesn’t exactly go down well with her family: “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” asks her mother, who has spent her life anticipating and avoiding conflict, even if it comes at the price of isolation. Existing as outsiders within a fishing community in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the Rossis rely on Ruby to be their envoy to the world around them, but within their own walls or on their boat they have a rich dynamic that Heder brings to life with care, complexity and humor.
Coming-of-age family dramas often trod well-worn paths, and “CODA” certainly does that. The film places the familiar beats in a new setting but never tries to rewrite the rules for movies like this; you know where it’s going but it feels fresh enough that you don’t mind the usual story beats along the way. Performers like Matlin, Kotsur and Derbez help with that, and British actress Jones is captivating as Ruby.
Is the ending corny? Of course it is — Apple probably wouldn’t have paid $25 million if it wasn’t. But really, the big-money deal sort of feels beside the point as Ruby and her family move toward something so gloriously, unashamedly emotional. Put aside the news stories and the expectations, and “CODA” is an old tale told with new brushstrokes, heartfelt and generous.