‘CODA’ Will Yank Shamelessly On Your Heartstrings … But It’s Very Good At It
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is in her last year of high school. She doesn’t have much of a plan beyond graduation, because she assumes she’s going to continue as she has been, working with her father and brother on the family fishing boat out of Gloucester, Mass. Ruby loves music and loves to sing, but the idea of actually trying to study or explore music seems like an impossible idea, even after her choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) sees promise in her and encourages her to apply to Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Deciding whether to work in the family business or strike out on your own is always tough, but for Ruby, it has an added wrinkle: her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and her brother (Daniel Durant) are deaf. Ruby herself is not; she is what’s called a CODA: a Child of Deaf Adults.
Directed and written by Sian Heder, CODA is closely based on a 2014 French film called La Famille Bélier, but this version has one important quality that the French film didn’t: The deaf characters are played by deaf actors. Matlin is probably the most famous deaf actor in the United States, but CODA also has hugely appealing turns from Kotsur and Durant, both of whom have worked with the Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, including on its lauded production of Spring Awakening. Matlin has worked there, too.
The fundamental conflict for Ruby is the disruption it would cause in her family for her to leave. She’s been her parents’ interpreter since she was a child, and she feels responsible for things like making sure her father isn’t cheated when he sells his fish at the end of every day.
Her parents — especially her mother — wonder what they would do without her to act as a bridge to the local community, which seems to have made no effort at all, either socially or in business terms, to communicate with the Rossis. This weighs on her parents, and it weighs on Ruby. It cannot go on like this forever, but what, her mother wonders, is the alternative?
CODA is a cheerfully conventional story in many respects: a kid discovers what she loves and has to figure out what she’s willing to give up to follow her dream. She has an inspirational teacher who believes in her. She’s met a boy, and that relationship is also making her think about life beyond the family she defends fiercely and sometimes resents. It’s a predictable piece in structure that’s sharp in execution, and that’s so inventive and fresh in some of its particulars that it almost disguises the most conventional story beats.
Widely released films rarely embrace ASL as much as CODA does, even for deaf characters: here, rather than speech being prioritized for hearing audiences, the actors sign and are subtitled, and the language is allowed to breathe in a way that’s moving, often funny, and very effective. (According to Variety, the French film didn’t subtitle the signing; hearing audiences only understood it through the daughter repeating or responding to it.)
There is no question that Ruby’s awakening about music can be vigorously corny — but the thing is … so are a lot of real high school awakenings about art. I myself went to a summer music camp as a teenager where lots of people were very serious musicians headed for conservatories. We learned the song “I Sing The Body Electric” from Fame — from actual, literal Fame, for heaven’s sake! — and believe me, at 15 I was deeply moved by singing lines like “I’ll look back on Venus, look back on Mars/and I’ll burn with the fire of ten million stars.” It was extremely corny and it meant the world to me. What’s more, our choral director believed everyone should know how to learn parts by ear, so she taught us that one without sheet music, just standing around together, which made it feel even more like a thing that would … you know, happen in a movie.
So while Ruby’s path is audience-ready and feels engineered to cause tears, sometimes music and theater kids are exactly that swept up in what they’re doing. It might be cheesy, but if you’re going to go for this kind of grand emotion, this actually might be the right setting for it.
And in the meantime, you get a much more subtle story alongside that about the ways in which this family dynamic both hurts and serves everyone in it. Ruby feels like she’s sacrificed a great deal for her family; her brother senses that she gets something from being the only person she thinks can communicate with the rest of the world effectively. This gentle study of patterns in families, where everybody can love each other while still being stuck in habits they need to break, doesn’t have the bombast of the musical sequences, but it has its own resonance.
Did CODA deserve to crowd out everything else to the degree that it did when Sundance handed out its awards? Probably not. But there is a place for the crowd-pleaser, the tear-jerker, the movie that wants to manipulate your emotions and make you cry — particularly if it manages to bring something new to an old formula. The performances here, especially from Kotsur and Durant, neither of whom were actors I had seen much of, are excellent. And if it feels silly to cry while people sing, then, well, as we all learn in time, there are worse reasons for tears.
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