The story has been told many times, in many movies.
A teenager/young adult is the odd one out of their family as he/she tries to follow their passion that will be in direct conflict with their family, despite the family being a loving one. These are movies such as October Sky (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), Bend it Like Beckham (2002), Sing Street (2016), and Blinded by the Light (2019). Even if the movies were good to some degree (as are the previously named films, in my opinion), we know the formula so well that it is near impossible not to predict what will happen.
Yet even with this formula, CODA (in select theaters and streaming now on Apple TV) still was unpredictable to me, mainly in how deeply I still felt for the characters. Despite knowing what will most likely happen, we still find ourselves smiling and choked up by the end because the film is so wonderfully told and impeccably acted that our hearts are softened to the point of oatmeal.
The titular CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) refers to Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a High School Senior living on the coast of Massachusetts, the only member of her immediate family who is not deaf. This means she needs to up at 3 AM every morning (and I thought waking up at 4 AM for Speech Team in High School was rough!) to assist her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) as fishermen everyday before school. Along with her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), the family life is indeed taking its toll on Ruby. Her only real escape is to go to the local quarry where she can lift her voice in song.
One day, she decides to take Choir as an elective, despite having no real prior training. It is here where she meets the teacher, Bernado Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), but only known as “Mr. V” to those who cannot roll their “Rs”. He is indeed one of those teachers we have all had in our lives, who push us when we don’t want them to, but later learn we needed them to. It is clearly evident that Ruby has talent, and it isn’t long before she realizes that singing would get in the way of helping her family (who are bearing their own labor issues with fishing).
There are some slightly lighter touches in character relationships in the film, such as the individual romantic interests pursued by Ruby and her brother Leo. We notice one of the main reasons Ruby joins choir is because she can also be around Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, who was the lead in the aforementioned Sing Street), who is mainly forced into the music scene by his family. They are put together for a duet in the upcoming concert, so more time spent together is inevitable. He indeed makes one mistake in their friendship (albeit a rather big one), but the aftermath of it is one that surprised me in how it played out.
We also see the nice little touches done with Leo’s new girlfriend Gertie (Amy Forsyth). Though far from the main focus of the film, it does show gentle touches of affective moments at the end when you realize she is learning a bit of ASL herself.
If you think all three of Ruby’s family members do such a great job at signing, it should be noted that they are all deaf actors (Matlin is indeed one of the more popular deaf actors in history, having won an Oscar for her first film role in the 1980s). This was crucial in the mind of the film’s writer/director Sian Heder, as it is the main reason for the film’s authenticity.
Heder is also responsible for perhaps the most vital part in what makes this film work: there are no subtitles when the characters are signing. While some of the things being signed are interpreted by Ruby, there are some scenes that she either does not interpret or she is simply not present. Eventually, we realize we don’t need to be eavesdropping on what the Rossi family are saying to each other so much as we need to perceive that they are communicating in the first place.*
Parents, the film is PG-13, and is justified. There is one brief sex scene (no nudity) that is played for laughs, as well as some swearing (some interpreted, some signed). I would say High School and above.
I remember a few years ago at New Year’s Eve, where, after my little teenage sister and I watched an episode of Switched at Birth (which also starred Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant), I decided to try learning ASL. I only lasted about a month, but I learned some of the basics. One of them was how to applaud for those in the Deaf community. As someone who never really applauds at all during a movie, I did find my self signing applause by the end of CODA.
It will be really difficult to have another heartwarming film in 2021 that surpasses this film.
Note: While I could not interpret any of what was signed, IMDB did give a quote from Frank that makes me want to watch this film again with an interpreter:
“You know why God made farts smell? So deaf people could enjoy them too.”
* I rewatched the film toward the end of the year, and realized that, for one reason or another, the subtitles were not on the first time I saw the film. Watching it with the subtitles did not take anything away from the film.