SYNOPSIS: Gifted with a voice that her parents can’t hear, seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), is the sole hearing member of a deaf family—a CODA, Child of Deaf Adults. Her life revolves around acting as interpreter for her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and working on the family’s struggling fishing boat every day before school with her father and older brother (Daniel Durant). But when Ruby joins her high school’s choir club, she discovers a gift for singing and finds herself drawn to her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Encouraged by her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) to apply to a prestigious music school, Ruby finds herself torn between the obligations she feels to her family and the pursuit of her own dreams.
‘CODA’ is short for ‘Child Of Deaf Adults’, but there is nothing short about the humour, heart and warmth that this absolute crowd-pleaser packs. Indeed, there is good reason why this adaptation of the 2014 French film ‘La Famille Belier’ won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, was picked up by Apple TV for a record-breaking US$25 million, and could very well walk away with the top prize of Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards.
The eponymous child is 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is the lone hearing member of her family comprising her dad Frank (Troy Kotsur), mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Not surprisingly, Ruby has spent her whole life acting as an interpreter for her family, not least as a deck hand on the family’s fishing boat. In between the daily morning fishing expeditions with her father and brother, Ruby has to juggle her high school responsibilities, which explains why she often falls asleep in class and smells like fish.
Ruby’s life takes a life-changing turn when she follows her crush in school, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), to sign up for choir. During her first session, Ruby runs out of class, though that is less because she is unable to sing than the fact that she is shy to do so in front of others. Ruby does summon the courage to return, and as you would probably expect, wows their music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) so much so that he offer to coach her on weekends and nights in order to prepare her to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Even though she had not contemplated such a future before, Ruby starts to imagine one beyond home and outside the confines of her family as she nurtures her singing talent. Alas her dreams come into sharp contrast against the future that her parents have for her – that is, to continue serving as interpreter for the family, whether out at sea in the event of any emergency or back on land to help them sell their catch; that tension is further exacerbated given how music is simply something that the rest of her family cannot instinctively appreciate.
Here is what writer-director Sian Heder succeeds with ‘CODA’ as Ruby’s coming-of-age story: as her family’s bridge to the hearing world, Ruby’s need to find her own place in the world comes with the weight of responsibility that she carries on behalf of her family. Ruby’s choice not only triggers her parents to reflect on the implications of their dependence on her, but also affects her brother Leo who genuinely wants her to do well and has also to grapple with his own pride that he is somehow less important to the family than she is.
Such dilemmas are not new, but Heder portrays them here with utmost sensitivity and respect to the characters which inhabit her story. Besides Ruby and Leo, Frank and Jackie occupy indelible roles in the narrative, both of whom are forced over the course of the film to confront that what may be convenient for their family may not necessarily be what is best for their daughter. Yes, as familiar as they may be, the family dynamics here are textured, vibrant and thoroughly appealing.
That accomplishment is as much Heder’s completely naturalistic filmmaking as it is the amazing chemistry among the cast, who had deservedly won the Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. We admit this is the first time we’re seeing Kotsur, Matlin and Durant, but they are an absolute joy to watch – in particular, Kotsur and Matlin have a blast leaning into their uninhibited characters, while Durant brings a poignant soulfulness as the other child in the family who is sometimes overlooked. And of course, there is British actress-singer/songwriter Jones, who is tender and tough and everything in between as Ruby, bringing a whole palette of moods to the table and blending seamlessly with the trio of deaf actors.
Like we said, there is good reason why ‘CODA’ has emerged as the frontrunner to win the top prize in the Academy Awards 2022. It is an emotional powerhouse of a movie, especially in the last act where dad and mom finally put aside their fears and insecurities to appreciate the world as Ruby is experiencing it – one of the best scenes is when the sound drops out during Ruby’s high-school concert, and we see how Frank and Jackie try to absorb the event by looking over the faces of their fellow audience members and smile and clap along when others do. Only the unredeemable cynic will be left indifferent when Ruby finally takes to her Berklee audition singing Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’; is it quite possibly one of the most moving climaxes we’ve seen this year.
Review by Gabriel Chong