CODA – Film Review
Cast: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin
Director: Sian Heder
Synopsis: As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby (Jones) acts as an interpreter for her family. When the family business comes under threat, she finds herself torn between helping her family, and pursuing her dreams…
Review: Families, it can really mean the world of difference to have them around us as we navigate this storm that we call life. They can be our influences for what we want to do with our lives, as well as being essential pillars of support as we grow up, and navigate the testing periods of our lives. There might be situations where a barrier, such as a communication barrier, prevents someone from being truly unable to fully understand and appreciate the passion that drives someone to be who they want to be. When such barriers exist, the bond and the love that each family shares can be so strong, that it has the potential to break those barriers down.
High school student Ruby Rossi is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), and the only hearing member of her family. When not at school, she works on her family’s fishing business. As she’s the only one in her family who can hear, she acts as a crucial link of communication between the family business and their bosses. Outside of school and her job with her family’s business, Ruby has a strong passion for singing and harbours ambitions to go to a prestigious musical college. However, this puts her in an extremely difficult position, as her family depend on her for the survival of their business. When she tells her family of her dreams, they don’t want her to go as she is integral to the survival of the business. Furthermore, because they are unable to fully appreciate her talent, they can’t understand why this means so much to Ruby. Consequently, this leaves Ruby in a difficult position as to whether she should continue to support the family business or pursue her dreams.
There’s been no shortage of coming-of-age stories over the decades. Hence, it would feel unlikely that a film in this genre could do much to reinvent the genre. In truth, there are extremely familiar beats throughout the film, but there’s something about CODA and its approach to its story that feels very sincere and authentic. A lot of this comes down to the extraordinary performances of the entire cast, but especially Emilia Jones’s wonderful leading performance as Ruby. Before production on the film started, Jones spent nine months learning American Sign Language. Putting in that time to initiate herself with what someone in that situation would go through requires an extraordinary amount of dedication and commitment. In turn, this translates into a very sweet and sincere dynamic between her and the rest of her family.
Speaking of the rest of the family, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, who are deaf in real life, give equally wonderful performances as Ruby’s parents, Frank and Jackie. Despite the communication barrier that exists between them and Ruby, they both want to do their utmost to connect with their daughter and understand her passion for singing. The casting of real-life deaf actors is crucial, firstly because representation matters, but also because they add so much depth/sincerity to the emotional impact of the film. There’s always a risk that when it comes to such a heartwarming story like this one, it will come across as a bit too saccharine. However, Sian Heder’s script expertly strikes the right tone between the impactful family drama and outright hilarious scenes. These scenes involve some awkward moments between Ruby and her parents, who are blissfully unaware of how loud they are in certain situations, causing maximum embarrassment for Ruby.
Aside from the sweet and hilarious family dynamic that Ruby shares with her family, another crucial figure is Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s choir teacher, Bernardo Villalobos. We may have all had one particular teacher at school who understood better than anyone else that passion you had for a particular subject. Yet, for whatever reason, be it due to bullying, or an unwillingness to come out of your shell, you were unable to fully translate that passion into realising what a true gift that you had. He’s that teacher who, through their sheer enthusiasm and passion for the subject, is able to unlock Ruby’s potential. Music teachers have sometimes been portrayed as quite the hostile and threatening type to demand excellence from their students. While Bernado is not quite on the level of throwing chairs at his students, he’s not afraid to say what he thinks when he senses the conflict that’s going on in Ruby’s mind and why she might be holding back from pursuing this dream.
The film does not reinvent the genre, because it does not need to. Its approach its story is so sweet and heartfelt, that it doesn’t matter that it plays out exactly how you would expect it to. They may be familiar beats of most coming-of-age stories, but when the characters are this well realised, in a story that’s likely to connect with all who watch that by the time the credits roll, you’ll be having a hard time trying to hold back the emotions.
While it undoubtedly has familiar narrative beats that have been seen in many a coming-of-age story, thanks to the flawless performances of its cast, this beautiful and heartfelt coming of age drama hits all the right notes.