Premise: As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) Ruby 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.
Apple made a big splash this year when it bought CODA, writer and director Siân Heder’s newest film for $25 million, a new record for a Sundance Film Festival acquisition. With such a big gamble, the streamer is surely hoping to not only bring in new viewers to its platform, but garner some awards attention at the end of the year. So does the film live up to the hype, and does it warrant such a large price tag? While it certainly reveals a fresh new voice in Heder, and a star-making turn from actress Emilia Jones, it’s a film that could use some refinement in the ways it presents its sensibilities.
Jones plays Ruby, a hearing teenager whose parents and brother are all deaf – the acronym stands for Child of Deaf Adults. As if growing up as an outcast in high school wasn’t difficult enough, Heder grounds Ruby’s struggles by playing into her conflicting loyalties. A senior in high school, she assists her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) to run their struggling fishing business, while her mother Jackie (Marlee Martin) handles the financial side. The film begins already establishing Ruby’s difficulty with maintaining both lives as she wakes up before the sun rises and works on the fishing boat, all before the school day begins. She joins the school choir on a whim (a boy she crushes on joins as well) and begins working with her demanding teacher (Eugenio Derbez) to refine her natural talent, who believes she has what it takes to be accepted to the Berklee College of Music.
By presenting us with Ruby’s dilemma, Heder gives a fresh take on the “coming of age” story. Without Ruby’s presence, her family has no way of communicating with the fishmongers they do business with, regulators trying to squeeze every penny from the fishermen, or Ruby’s teachers when they express how gifted she is. Ruby is constantly presented with a genuine dilemma throughout the film – does she stay and help her family, or does she go on her own to pursue her dreams? The organic nature of the film is one of its biggest strengths, though Heder tends to over-emphasize the dramatic bits occasionally. Some of these moments work and help to get us on Ruby’s family’s side, and some work against the nuances that Heder has worked towards. After all, it’s hard to be subtle when your film has a montage depicting a fraught small business that’s set to The Clash’s “I Fought the Law.” That said, the best scenes are with the Rossi family together, hashing out their insecurities and flaws; their own dreams are crumbling while Ruby is only beginning to realize her own.
Emilia Jones makes the most of her first major role by fully enveloping us in Ruby’s internal and external struggles. A film that relies heavily on deaf actors and sign language should utilize its actor’s facial expressions and body language, and Jones never fails to clue us into what she’s trying to say. It’s one of the best performances of the year, and one that should land Jones plenty of compelling roles in the future. Ruby and her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) are paired together for a duet – another narrative convenience that doesn’t totally derail the film – and begin to fall for each other. Jones and Walsh-Peelo have formidable chemistry together, and the story effectively plays into their characters’ nervousness when approaching something they’re unfamiliar with.
While CODA‘s script has some issues, Heder manages to fill it with character details that give the film an added sense of verisimilitude. Ruby – the only one in her family with the ability to speak – being gifted with a talent for singing threatens to be too heavy-handed, but adds an extra bit of tragedy when her parents will never be able to appreciate her ability. CODA is also often very funny, an unexpected flair that Heder uses to great effect to keep the film from being too dour. Kotsur and Martin in particular have a hilarious scene at a doctor’s office that plays into the audience’s preconceived notions of deaf people and middle-aged parents.
Hollywood has underrepresented the deaf community for too long, often relegating deaf characters to be dropped into a film as a narrative convenience. Siân Heder has successfully crafted a loving film full of rich characters whose primary trait is their deafness, but who refuse to be defined by it. In the hands of a lesser talent, Ruby’s family would have no flaws, or be shunned by the community they inhabit. Instead, we’re given Ruby’s full perspective, as someone who truly loves them but recognizes how exhausting her life can be. Heder’s script has a few plot hurdles that keep it from greatness, but her heart is in the right place, and the film represents a promising step forward for her and Emilia Jones.
CODA premieres in theaters and on AppleTV+ on August 13.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.