Film Review – CODA
Writer/director Sian Heder’s CODA (2021) comes dangerously close to schmaltzy melodrama and in certain instances crosses that line. All the sappy elements are there: a young person coming of age, a family trying to understand one another during financial hardship, etc. These are the ingredients of your classic tearjerker. However, the earnest nature of Heder’s narrative lifts it above the dripping sentimentality. There is a ton of empathy here, with characters so finely drawn that to not connect with them is to have a heart of stone.
The title clues us into the premise. “CODA” stands for “Child of Deaf Adults,” and that is how we are introduced to Ruby (Emilia Jones). Ruby is the youngest of the Rossi clan, all of whom are deaf except for her. Ruby is a high school teen with dreams of becoming a professional singer, but the responsibility of her home puts her in a bind. Because she can hear and speak, Ruby acts as the de facto translator for the family, working alongside her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on their fishing boat. While the family clearly loves Ruby, the fact that they have never heard her sing causes them to worry about her future, especially from her mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin).
This back-and-forth acts as the central conflict – with Ruby trying to balance two sides of her life. It must be a tough and stressful situation to be in. Because of her ability to communicate with non-deaf people, Ruby becomes a crutch for the family. They cannot afford a translator, so she feels an obligation to fill that void. But she’s a young person, who deserves to live her own life and pursue her own interests. She comes under the tutelage of her high school’s choir director, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who helps prepare her to audition for music school.
Heder’s writing and direction has a straightforward, no-frills kind of style. There are no flashy camera tricks or fast paced, quick cut editing. Characters speak plainly and directly, both with their voices and through sign language. The only time we get a directorial flair is when Heder drops the sound into silence, so that we can witness the visual elements of a scene in the same way that Ruby’s family does. Heder utilizes the contrast between sound and silence for both dramatic and humorous effect. Some of the funnier sequences happen when Ruby’s family don’t realize the noises they make and who might be listening. When Ruby’s dad picks her up from school, he does so while blasting rap music so he can feel the vibrations of the bass. An awkward situation arises when Ruby brings a friend home just as her parents are making love. Obviously, they don’t realize a friend is over because they can’t hear them come in.
But as funny as these moments can be, the struggle for Ruby and her family is equally real. They are trying to live their lives in a hearing world. Frank and Leo feel like outcasts among the fishing community. This is especially true for Leo, who has internalized the frustration of constantly having to adapt for other people. He rightfully believes they can survive on their own. He is often jealous of Ruby for being treated as the child that can save the family. Daniel Durant gives an exceptional performance as Leo, displaying his broad range of emotions. He can be vulnerable and open one minute and explode in a bout of anger in the next scene, but all of it feels right. I may not understand sign language, but Durant’s performance has such expression that I could see the pain bubbling inside him.
However, this is Emilia Jones’ show, and she gives the standout performance as Ruby. She is everything a person Ruby’s age is – knowing she wants to do something but unsure how to do it. Ruby goes through all the anxiety and stress of being a high school teen but has the added pressure of assisting her family. She develops feelings for cute boy Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), but that too is tested because of her predicament. Jones showcases a lovely singing voice, and because Ruby’s background is developed well, we can sense where the emotion in her music comes from. Ruby is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and as the tension mounts so too does the empathy Jones brings out of us. She knows when to take a scene up to a high point and when to bring it down to deliver an emotional punch. The best scene of the film – which I’m sure many will grab a tissue for – is not a loud, high-octane monologue, but a quiet, toned-down exchange where she truly gets to show how much singing means to her.
With all the good CODA has going for it, it does fall for several mushy, formulaic traps. Scenes where characters must race against the clock to get to a location, or when a character magically appears out of nowhere to save the day, or when a grand gesture somehow makes all the problems of the world melt away. Most of these happen in the third act, where Heder meanders her way toward a conclusion. The hardships of the first two acts are either conveniently dealt with or are forgotten about entirely. It’s as though the narrative has difficulty finding a satisfying way to end, and so it downshifts into neutral. At this point we enter a sit-com like reality, where a hug and a smile can overcome any obstacle.
And yet – what if a hug and a smile is what we need right now? Sometimes an old-fashioned feel-good movie is exactly the thing to pick up our spirits. Despite its problems, CODA has such tenderness and compassion for its characters that one can’t help but root for them. It wears its intentions on its sleeve and isn’t ashamed of it. I was won over by the strength of the performances and the moments of genuine, heartfelt emotion. I may not have loved it, but I sure liked it.