In the beginning, you might think that Sian Heder’s film CODA is all about predictable rhythms that you’ve watched many times before. After all, in a fairly familiar coming-of-age scenario, it follows a bright small-town girl from meager beginnings who fantasizes of studying music in the big city. There’s an optimistic teacher, a lovely crush, heartfelt rehearsal compilations, a high-stakes audition, and, of course, a family suspicious of their children’s ambitions. You might believe you already know everything there is to know about this comfort food at first sight.
CODA will prove you wrong. Caring, exuberant, and adorned with the biggest of hearts. It’s not that Heder doesn’t value the norms mentioned above for what they’re worth; she does. She pulls off nothing short of a beautiful miracle with her film, whose title is an acronym: Child of Deaf Adult, by bending the formula and presenting this recognized story inside a new, perhaps even pioneering setting with such caring, keenly observed accuracy. The supremely gifted girl in question here happens to be one, played by Emilia Jones. She is negotiating the nuances of her identity, passions, and familial expectations, trying to balance them without hurting anyone’s feelings, including her own.
CODA is, to be honest, based on the French movie “La Famille Bélier,” so the concept isn’t entirely unique. The ensemble is what distinguishes this show, and it makes a significant impact. While hearing actors represented the family in the well-intentioned original (except for the brother, who deaf actor Luca Gelberg played), they are all performed by real-life deaf actors in Heder’s film. Legendary Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, scene-stealing Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant lead a stellar cast that infuses her version with a special, natural type of tenderness.
Jones plays Ruby, a 17-year-old high school student in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who gets up at 5 a.m. every day to help her family—her father Frank (Kotsur), mother Jackie (Matlin) and brother Leo (Durant),—at their boat and newly opened fish business. Heder doesn’t waste any time in giving us a feel of Ruby’s everyday routine. Because she is the only hearing member of the Rossi clan, she is used to being their sign-language translator when they are out in public. She spends her days translating every scenario imaginable in two ways: at town meetings and at the doctor’s office (one early instance of which plays for full-sized laughs thanks to Kotsur’s golden comedic chops).
What Ruby has appears to be so well-balanced and awe-inspiring that it takes a while to realize how taxing the whole situation is for the young girl, despite her maturity and feeling of responsibility far above her years. For startER, she is well aware of everything personal about her parents, including their medical concerns and (to her uproarious horror) their sex lives. When the hearing world is unkind or dismissive, she adopts almost protective instincts, always putting them first.
When Ruby joins the school choir and uncovers her talent for singing, it throws her off balance. It puts her at odds with her family, especially when she decides to apply to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, adopting a rehearsal schedule that frequently conflicts with her family’s business obligations. Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from “Sing Street”), a bashful boy with genuine admiration for Ruby, complicates matters further.
Suppose there’s one flaw in this film. In that case, it’s how far Heder goes with Eugenio Derbez’s Bernardo Villalobos, a character who somehow conveys a sitcom-like artificiality in an otherwise genuine film. Derbez does the best he can with a set of generic dialogue lines, but his scenes don’t always land with the same sincerity as the rest of CODA. Yet, this lack of judgment seems trivial in a film so emotional, so in touch with its old-fashioned crowd-pleaser character.
And plenty of other forms of genuineness throughout “CODA” make up for it, from Heder’s depiction of Cape Ann and the world around it through lived-in elements to how she recognizes the joys and sorrows of a working-class family with honesty and humor, without ever making them or them feel guilty.
Above all, she persuades us that the Rossis are a real family with natural chemistry, genuine relationships, and their own challenges, both unique and common like any other family. Ruby’s chosen path exemplifies the individuality of those regular battles. Would Ruby’s sound-driven talent set her apart from the rest of the Rossis? What would the quartet’s life be like if Ruby decided to leave?
Heder spells out the answers openhandedly in several wonderfully generous (and, to this observer, tear-jerking) moments, particularly a pair that plays like mirror versions of one other. During one, all sound fades away while Ruby sings in front of her loved ones, allowing us to see her actions through the eyes of the deaf. Sound doesn’t matter in the other, which features a well-chosen track that might warm even the coldest of hearts. Because through their shared language, Heder assures that we see the boundless love that exists.
CODA presents a simple reason for the relevance of screen representation: a century of films made from homogeneous views has left so many unreported stories and new experiences. It’s a simple delight to watch familiar dramas unfold in the hands of actors who are frequently limited to supporting roles. Matlin is a hysterical, vivacious movie star who usually plays “the Deaf character,” but she’s also a mother, a wife, and a businesswoman in this film. Heder taps everything she has to give on the screen.
CODA is polished, even if it is a tad sweet for some tastes. I was grateful for the film’s celebration of family, friends, and life in a painful moment.
On Apple TV+ today.