By Lynn Venhaus
Sure, it’s predictable, but “CODA” earns its way into your heart with a touching family coming-of-age story that makes it impossible not to be moved by it.
As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When the family’s fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her fear of abandoning her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur).
With warmth, humor and a strong cast, “CODA” has turned a conventional family dynamic and an oft-told tale of a teenager pursuing her dream into something special. Not original, it is a remake of a 2014 French film, “The Belier Family,” but setting it in America translates well.
The film has an appealing lived-in atmosphere. The solid sense of place, set in a New England fishing village — Gloucester, Mass., is one of this small film’s charms. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro deftly handles land and sea — and a flooded rock quarry. Production Designer Diane Lederman has added visual texture with a shabby yet cozy clapboard cottage as the family home and a battered fishing trawler for its business.
The working-class Rossi family has earned its living as fishermen. Dad Frank, Mom Jackie and son Leo are all deaf, and the local fishing business is going through economic struggles, which affects their home life. Ruby helps, but she has high school and can’t be there all the time.
Because she loves to sing, the shy and awkward teen signs up for choir, surprising her best friend and family – and herself. Her mother doesn’t understand this need to pursue a hobby – and underestimates Ruby’s passion.
A tough music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos recognizes her natural talent and pushes her to succeed, although she is her own worst enemy because of her lack of confidence, not commitment.
A graduate of the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mr. V has arranged auditions at his alma mater for a bright star, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and decides to do the same for Ruby.
“There are many pretty voices with nothing to say,” Mr. V tells her. “Do you have something to say?” Turns out, she does.
But the family’s dependence on Ruby is so overwhelming that she feels that she can’t pursue her dreams. Well, open the waterworks, because there will be bumps in the road, and baby steps, to finding a way to keep her time slot – not only as an individual, but also as a family.
Director-writer Sian Heder has presented the challenges of deaf adults in a hearing world with compassion and accuracy. Through her sharp observations, we can see what hardships that hearing-impaired people face daily. She demonstrates it effectively throughout the film, but a later scene at a concert, shot with complete silence, is a stunner.
Heder, with only her second feature film, won the directing award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Like “Minari” last year, “CODA” was honored with both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and a Special Jury Prize fpr Best Ensemble.. Apple Studios purchased it for a record-breaking $25 million. I hope it will have a broader reach than arthouses.
Oscar winner Matlin, now 55 and the mother of four children, has been an active spokeswoman for the National Captioning Institute. In 1995, she was instrumental in Congress passing a law requiring all television sets that are 13 inches or larger to be manufactured with built-in chips for closed captioning capabilities on their screens.
After winning the Academy Award in 1987 for her debut screen performance in “Children of a Lesser God,” she has represented the deaf community for breakthroughs large and small.
Her visibility here, as an imperfect mother seeking to be more sensitive to her hearing daughter, is immeasurable, and she does a fine job.
As the sexy mom, she has a playfulness with deaf actor Troy Kotsur, whose portrayal of a gruff but soft-around-the-edges dad is believable. They provide a light-hearted touch, as does deaf actor Daniel Durant as big brother Leo, who tussles with his baby sister like brothers naturally do.
Emilia Jones’ pitch-perfect performance is the necessary glue, and fully engaged, she does not overplay the teenage angst and range of feelings.
The family’s love for each other can be felt, and the actors project that bond.
Supporting players also appear comfortable in their roles, particularly Eugenio Derbez, known for comedies in his native Mexico, showing his drama skills as the no-nonsense choir director.
He’s relatable, as is Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, so terrific in 2016’s sublime “Sing Street,” as Ruby’s duet partner Miles. So is Amy Forsyth, notable as Ruby’s best friend Gertie.
Also noteworthy is composer Maurius de Vries for his expert music supervision. He worked on both “La La Land” and Baz Luhrman’s “Moulin Rouge!” and makes some interesting choices here. Miles and Ruby sing the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell classic “You’re All I Need to Get By” and Ruby’s audition piece is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Be sure to stay for the credits to hear Jones’ sweetly sing “Beyond the Shore.”
The movie uses English subtitles when characters use American Sign Language.
A crowd-pleaser in the mold of “Billy Elliot,” “CODA” resonates because it takes a familiar story and amplifies it through a different perspective. It is a major step forward in inclusivity.
“CODA” is a 2021 drama directed by Sian Heder and stars Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Amy Forsyth. Rated PG-13 for strong sexual content and language, and drug use, its runtime is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It is in theaters and streaming on Apple Plus TV starting Aug. 13. Lynn’s Grade: A-
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.