Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA, a child of deaf adults. Her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), are deaf, as is her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). The Rossis are a fishing family in Gloucester, Mass., and Ruby works as their interpreter on the ship and in the harbor where they sell their product. Their family is loving and tight-knit, but at high school, Ruby feels afloat and aimless. Other teenagers tease her about her parents and the fact that she works on the fishing boat. She’s not great academically and her friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), seems to have the hots for Leo. Being a teenager is an awkward time, particularly when you’re a cornerstone of your family’s business simply by the nature of your birth. That goes double when your parents can’t hear you, and all you want to do is sing.
Yeah, you’ve seen plenty of movies like CODA before: An outspoken, awkward teenage girl wants to leave home to follow a dream her family won’t, or can’t, support. Heartfelt conversations and a few dramatic beats later, everything moves forward with some tearful goodbyes and lessons learned. Stories repeat. It’s fine. CODA is a thoughtful, authentic version of that story, told in a unique and representational way.
Writer-director Sian Heder adapted CODA from the French film La Famille Bélier, shifting the original film’s farm setting to a more rustic fishing town on the East Coast. Matlin is characteristically great here and actually helped shepherd the project to completion. She was the first performer to sign on and threatened to walk if deaf performers were not hired to play deaf characters. CODA benefits dramatically from the authenticity of the cast. Kotsur, a recognizable face due to smaller parts in a decades-long career, is scene-stealing as Frank. Coming-of-age stories sink or swim by the strength of the ensemble, and CODA is one of the best this year.
Jones is the star and the stand-out, playing a more nuanced version of a woman who wants to leave home. Ruby has no delusions of grandeur and has to grapple with whether to allow her innate practicality win out over the seemingly far-fetched hope that she can do something just for her. It’s hard for her to even explain her desires to her parents at first and of course the response isn’t as supportive as she needs them to be. “Would you want to be a painter if I was blind?” Jackie asks Ruby, in one of the film’s many layered mother-daughter conversations.
CODA weaves between conflict and understanding with a deft sense of pacing. It never feels like Heder is just checking off story beats, even as her film hits the big moments you expect. The best scenes in the film are when Ruby finally performs in front of an audience with her family in attendance. Heder cuts the audio and focuses on them reading the rest of the audiences’ reactions to Ruby’s voice, which helps them understand the power of her voice. Later, at home, Ruby sings to Frank in an intimate fashion I’d never seen or considered before. It’s some tear-jerking stuff.
Apple picked up CODA from Sundance earlier in 2021, and the film will make its premiere on the Apple TV+ service. It was a crowd-pleaser then and hopefully finds some life amid the glut of content available on streaming services. It’s a smart feel-good drama with good music, a great cast and a sensitive portrayal of a culture that rarely gets its due on the big screen. One of my favorite movies this year.