One of the most talked about movies from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Sian Heder’s “CODA”. The heartwarming coming-of-age story follows 17-year-old Ruby, the lone hearing member of her culturally deaf family. Both written and directed by Heder, “CODA” is an English-language remake of a 2014 French dramedy “La Famille Bélier”. It had its premiere at Sundance and was quickly gobbled up by Apple for a record setting $25 million.
While “La Famille Bélier” was set on a dairy farm in rural France, “CODA” (short for ‘child of deaf adults’) is about a family of fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Emilia Jones plays Ruby who we first meet on her family’s boat reeling in nets and separating flounder, crab, and the occasional leather boot. She works the tub with her salty and grizzled father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and her ambitious old brother Leo (Daniel Durant), both deaf. Back home the fourth member of the Rossi clan is Ruby’s mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), also deaf. Together they make for a feisty but loving group.
One of the great accomplishments of “CODA” is its ability to enlighten while also expelling myths about the deaf community. Heder puts a ton of effort into portraying the Rossi clan as a normal everyday family who in many ways aren’t too different than anyone else. They laugh, they squabble, they get on each others nerves. And like so many other families working the North Shore, they feel the financial strain of the struggling fishing market. Most importantly, Heder gives plenty of attention to each individual family member, fully fleshing out their unique personalities and trusting the cast to bring them to life.
At the same time Heder doesn’t shy away from the real-life day-to-day challenges that comes with being deaf. In many ways Ruby is our conduit to a better understanding of the struggles at home and out in the community. Sometimes it’s small things like the inability to gauge volume – the loud rattling of dishes, the noisy lovemaking coming from her parents’ bedroom, or the blaring music (Frank likes hip-hop, not for the music itself but for the vibration he feels from the speakers). Other hurdles have more serious implications especially when a local commission starts putting the squeeze on area fisherman. Frank fights to keep their business afloat, but without Ruby present, communicating with the all-hearing public is next to impossible.
This makes it especially tough for Ruby who is counted on to be her family’s interpreter and general go-between. Ruby loves her family deeply, but she’s carried this obligation since she was a child and it’s wearing her down. “I’ve been interpreting my whole life,” an exasperated Ruby laments. “It’s exhausting.” To make it worse, it doesn’t allow Ruby to pursue her real passion – singing. She has the voice but doesn’t have the nerves to sing in front of people nor does she have a family she can share it with.
Enter quirky choir director Bernardo Villalobos (a delightful Eugenio Derbez). He sees something in Ruby and pushes her to trust her voice and believe in herself. It’s a trope we’ve seen countless times – the inspirational teacher breaking through to the insecure pupil. But as with many things in “CODA”, underneath the familiar exterior is a warmth and authenticity that’s hard to resist. And as Mr. V. predictably encourages Ruby to pursue her passion, even pushing her to audition for Boston’s Berklee College of Music, we’re with her every step of the way.
That aforementioned authenticity can be found all through “CODA”, from the rich blue-collar setting (filmed on location in Gloucester) to the way it normalizes the deaf community’s experience (I would guess 50% of the film is in American Sign Language). Mostly it’s in the characters who feel rooted in the world we see and driven by organic emotions. This is partly due to how well they’re written, but also because of the performances. Casting three incredibly talented deaf actors (including one Oscar winner) made all the difference and together with Jones the four share a remarkable chemistry.
And I also have to say that “CODA” is legitimately funny. The laughs come natural and frequently while also being honest and reverent. The humor makes for a great compliment to the coming-of-age drama which follows a pretty conventional blueprint but enhances it with a uniquely fresh perspective. And even though you get a good sense for where the movie is heading, the story is so joyously earnest and deeply affecting that you won’t care. There’s a magic to that and the folks behind “CODA” have it. “CODA” opens August 13th on Apple TV+.