Review: CODA (2021)
Siân Heder’s film CODA is a joyful and well-paced coming of age story about Ruby Rossi and her family.
As the only hearing member in the household, Ruby is the connector between her mum, dad, brother and society, a responsibility which becomes more of a weight on her as she realises that she won’t always be able to play the role of interpreter if she wants to pursue her dreams.
The three pillars in the protagonist’s life are singing, fishing and deafness, and Ruby is positioned somewhere between them all. In the opening scene, we see how these spheres interconnect: she’s working on a fishing boat with her father and brother and singing along to Etta James, before disembarking to deal with the cost of the day’s catch on behalf of the family business. Jackie, Frank and Leo (her mum, dad and brother, respectively) are perceptive and understand that the fishery board aren’t charging fairly, but they have no idea how incredible Ruby’s voice is. In addition to the countless injustices they face due to being deaf, this has to be one of the worst.
Over the course of the film, Ruby discerns that her parents’ reliance on her will have to come to an end at some point, which is, in part, why the title is so pertinent. A CODA in the deaf community means ‘child of deaf adult’, but as an Italian musical term it means a passage that brings a composition to an end. In the film, we see the final passage of Ruby’s childhood drawing to a close as she comes to the end of her school career and has to make a decision about which direction to take her life in next, and the result could see her worlds apart – study music at college, or become a full time fisher. It’s not exactly the usual toss up teenagers have to choose between!
Ruby’s identity has always been shaped by her family’s difference and as a 17-year-old she is very conscious of this… not that being self-aware makes her any less sensitive to the meanness of her peers. In fact, when attending her first choir practice she abruptly runs out because bullies made her so conscious of her voice when she was younger. She is candid about her home, referring to it as ‘disgusting’ but just gets on with life accepting that she experiences it differently to most of her schoolmates. What with her no-frills approach to her appearance and choice of outfit (jeans, Boston Bruins hoody or a plaid shirt and battered old backpack), along with her genuine consideration of other people, Ruby is perhaps the least egotistical, neurotic female lead to be written into a drama comedy for some time. These character traits are what make her so likeable and why we desperately want her to be happy and to craft her own sense of identity, instead of being caught between so many others.
Besides a consistent feelgood tone, and the sense that the film has been made with love, another highlight is the strength of CODA’s cast: Ruby (Emilia Jones) puts in a fantastic performance as the lead, and her choir master, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), though in a secondary role, is another standout – and even if he does play an archetypal eccentric arts teacher, he does it to perfection con espressione. Unlike the original French film Coda is based on, La Famille Bélier, the cast who play the other Rossi family members are all deaf. Marlee Matlin (the only deaf performer in history to have won an acting Academy Award) and Troy Kotsur are both superb, bringing warmth, humour and an accomplished realness to the film. In addition to this, all on set interpreters were all CODAs.
Though there is a minor romantic element woven into the narrative, this never overshadows the drama of the instability happening within the family. Scenes with love interest and duet buddy Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) provide respite away from school and work, and therefore a feeling of liberation for both the audience and Ruby. Miles also brings an alternative perspective on Ruby’s life when he notes the presence of love in the family – in particular, he comments on how well the family communicate with each other, despite three quarters of the family not being able to hear. This fresh take on the Rossis sends an important message about what we value in a material-driven society; and though they may have financial worries and job instability (exacerbated by being deaf), the Rossi family do have each other and that evidently counts for so much more.
Clearly, there is much to adore in CODA. Besides giving us a story to invest in and the subtle inclusion and acknowledgment of how society makes things extremely difficult for people in the deaf community, it is also highly entertaining. The soundtrack is uplifting and there is plenty of humour. Many creative expletives and jokes are expressed with sign language, and the dialogue between characters (most of which appears as subtitles) is filled with tenacity and wit. Signing is used so innovatively that it brings a whole new element to the film rather than impeding the viewing experience. In fact, Heder uses signing in such a physical and emotional way that it makes you wonder why it isn’t utilised in more films – it’s a whole new layer of language that you can't get with words alone.
And this is where music comes in. Music is not only an important part of the soundtrack, but the story too. Does Ruby have the confidence to pursue singing? How will it fit into her life? How could her family ever understand the freedom that performing provides? Instead of shying away from it, music is used in tandem with signing and as Ruby performs Joni Mitchell’s 'Both Sides Now', the lyrics are elevated to a new level and this moment in the film provides one of the most moving scenes of the year.
CODA is an uplifting expression of disability, a sensitive commentary on bullying and exclusion as well as a sweet hearted portrait of an ordinary girl with extraordinary talent. Ruby may be an unsuspecting starlet, or underdog, but we need that sense of hope and it’s refreshing to see a more realistic young female character than usual. One of the main critiques edged at the film will be that it’s formulaic, but if it lost any part of the narrative, each act would lose its effectiveness. It may utilise a familiar arc and story structure, but Heder clinches it so well that this doesn’t matter. Instead of dwelling on unnecessary elements like teen romance and high school cliques, we’re shown a glimpse into Ruby’s path ahead as she approaches the fine of her teen years, which is far more interesting.
Verdict: Beautifully endearing and surprisingly funny. Siân Heder and Apple TV deliver the best film of the year so far. There's nothing not to love here.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡