CODA is a great film.
CODA isn't so much a perfect film. Greatness isn't always about perfection. Instead, CODA achieves greatness because it tells a familiar story in a remarkably unfamiliar way and practically dares us not to love this vibrant and funny and honest and heartfelt coming-of-age story and the people in it. CODA, in case you're not yet aware, stands for "Child of Deaf Adults" and this describes 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a delightful teenager searching for her own voice while often serving as the voice for her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin), and stifling the voice of her also deaf elder brother, Leo (Daniel Durant).
CODA became one of the Sundance Film Festival's most prize-winning films earlier this year after picking up the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature along with a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble and the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature and the Director's Prize for writer/director Sian Heder. The film was picked up by AppleTV+ for a record-setting $25 million.
It was worth every penny.
CODA is a film that deserves to be remembered come awards season.
Coming-of-age films are, of course, a dime a dozen. There's nothing in CODA in its basic structure that screams originality except for the fact that Heder has set this coming-of-age story in the middle of a deaf family while using deaf actors to tell the rather remarkable story. CODA features one of the year's best ensemble efforts bringing to life a rich, funny, and deeply human story that avoids caricatures, stereotypes, and any sense of feeling "special."
There's no winking here. There's no nodding here.
This is a real world brought beautifully to life.
If you're not madly in love with Emilia Jones's Ruby by film's end, you might as well give up and never watch another film again. Jones has been lingering around the Hollywood scene for a few years but has never really broken through in any serious way.
That's about to change.
Jones is nothing short of magnificent here. She could have so easily been turned into nothing more than the hearing hero for a family of fishermen, but Jones's Ruby is so much more here. Yes, of course, CODA deals with Ruby's unofficial role as the family's hearing link to a world that often isn't listening. It also recognizes such technical, and true, points as Ruby's presence as the required hearing person on a fishing boat run by a deaf family in an increasingly competitive and discriminatory market. Yet, these storylines are brought to life honestly and devoid of the usual patronizing condescension so often found in Hollywood tripe. Yet, more than anything, CODA gives us the very real dynamics existing in a very real family as one, Ruby, seeks to discover her own voice and wants to find her identity outside her family.
In this case, music is center stage. While Ruby spends her days on board the family's boat off the Gloucester shores, we learn early on that the girl can sing and it's not particularly surprising when she takes this tightly held secret and joins her high school's choir under the direction of Bernardo Villalobo (Mexican acting great Eugenio Derbez). Under his occasionally snarky but always heartfelt mentoring, Ruby blossoms as he encourages her to tackle a duet with her secret beau Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and to pursue her dreams even if it means heading off to Berklee College of Music instead of spending life on a fishing boat.
I'm sitting here crying again just thinking about these scenes.
As of late, we've seen a growing respect from Hollywood for the deaf and hard of hearing worlds (NOTE: They are two different worlds, by the way). From John Krasinski's A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place 2 to last year's acclaimed Sound of Metal to other films such as Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, the deaf community is finally getting respect rather than patronized and that comes even more wondrously to life here. A re-imagining of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, CODA is remarkable because all three actors who comprise Ruby's family are, in fact, deaf actors including, perhaps most notably, Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin as Ruby's mother who, in one of the film's most beautiful scenes, shares openly her own anxieties as the deaf parent of a hearing child. While we often talk about how some actresses simply never get their due even after winning an Academy Award, this may never be as true as it is with the remarkably gifted Matlin. The presence of deaf actors playing deaf characters helps to ensure a level of authenticity that hearing actors simply can't provide no matter how gifted. Beyond the importance of authentic representation, which cannot be overstated, having deaf actors creates an honesty in this world that we're being asked to believe in. As a result, our immersion deepens.
There's both a remarkable chemistry and a quiet hesitancy within this family. This key difference in one family member matters. It doesn't impair the love, but it creates a dynamic that plays into every activity, every function, and every aspect of every relationship. CODA understands this yet also understands that this difference doesn't define this family or these people but it is part of their culture.
This is a huge difference and most films, nearly all films, get it wrong.
CODA gets it right.
In addition to a stand-out, breakthrough performance by Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur is a revelation as Frank, a slightly bawdy spouse and proud father whose identity is impacted by his self-perceived lack of vocalization when the man has so much to say. As his fishing boat gets increasingly screwed over by local authorities, CODA paints a powerful picture of a real-life scenario that you don't quite realize is so powerful until the closing credits have scrolled by and you're left thinking about it all days later.
I'm still thinking about it and I'm still thinking about Kotsur's amazing performance.
Both Matlin and Durant shine here, as well, Matlin the more understated parent who dismisses her daughter's interest in singing as teenage rebellion and Durant a remarkable young man determined to learn how to use his own voice and frustrated when his efforts to do so are dismissed even within his own family.
Eugenio Derbez is already recognized as a great actor in Mexico, though he's never quite found the perfect role here in the U.S.
CODA offers up the perfect role. As Bernardo, Derbez is Mr. Holland with a whole lot more humor and a whole lot more heart.
Oh, and minus the opus.
Seriously, Derbez is simply wonderful here and one can only hope that CODA offers him the breakthrough opportunity here in the U.S. that he so richly deserves.
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as Miles, and Amy Forsyth, as Ruby's best friend Gertie, round out the key players in a truly outstanding ensemble cast. Adding much of the film's humor and the 13 in that PG-13 rating, Forsyth is a joy as the friskier and freer Gertie whose loyalty and friendship are never minimized or toyed with here. CODA avoids unnecessary histrionics in favor of a story with honesty and integrity.
And that means, of course, that one can't praise CODA without praising the remarkable work of writer/director Sian Heder. Heder has made a familiar story feel fresh and alive and wonderful. She's demanded authenticity in story and casting and she's directed in such a way that CODA is inspirational precisely because it is not, in fact, inspirational.
It's honest. It's life. It's real. It's wonderful.
The on-set interpreters themselves were all CODAS, authentic representation leads to authentic immersion.
Paula Huidobro's lensing for the film vacillates between immersive and observational while helping to bring both of the film's languages, English and American Sign Language, to life with equal enthusiasm. Music by Marius De Vries is a wonder of emotional resonance and narrative revelation. Diane Lederman's production design is stand-out from beginning to end.
There is, quite simply, nothing I didn't love about CODA.
Easily one of the best moviegoing experiences of 2021, CODA is an absolute joy.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic