Sundance 2021: ‘CODA’ Makes Music of Movement and the Mundane In Its Portrait of Deaf Life

Vendôme Pictures / Pathé Films

As if fitting in at school isn’t hard enough, sometimes Ruby Rossi doesn’t even feel like she fits in at home. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a child of Deaf adults (or ‘CODA’) who is the only hearing member of her family. Along with her parents Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant), Ruby  helps run the family’s small fishing business. While out on the family boat, she sings along to music, hauls in fish, and works alongside her father and brother reeling in the day’s catch.

This is an English and ASL remake of La Famille Bélier, a 2014 French film about a hearing child of Deaf parents pursuing music. It updates the setting to the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where Ruby wakes up early each morning to fish, and dreams of attending Berklee College of Music for singing. At its core, this story celebrates family, language and expression, and the power of feeling understood. An immense amount of credit is due to two “ASL masters” involved with the production, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, who assisted director Sian Heder with the ASL dialogue that makes up a large portion of the film.

Jones sparkles as Ruby, who is colorful and expressive in her language, whether she is speaking or signing, and her energy and singing voice are luminous even when she hides shyly. Matlin and Kotsur deliver magnetic and animated performances as the fun and shamelessly frisky parents. They roll up to school blasting music from their pickup truck, loving the vibrations of the loud rap music and not caring what anybody else think, their body language and snappy signed conversations full of jokes and quips. Frank is particularly the jokester, making classic dad jokes about farts, while Ruby’s mother helps her brother decide who to swipe right on. While the Deaf characters might be the primary source of comedy, here they are in on the jokes; Ruby comedically mistranslates her father’s itching woes and colorful descriptions of his jock itch, and also pranks her friend by giving her the wrong signs, and they laugh together about the hilarity of it all.

Vendôme Pictures / Pathé Films

Despite Ruby’s unusual family situation, she faces common teen challenges at school: crushing on a boy, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and following her love of singing by joining choir. The choir teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), is demanding, pushing Ruby to break out of her shell. He is equal parts singing coach, acting teacher, and motivational speaker, getting his music students to pant like dogs as a warm up and forcing Ruby to get in front of her class and sing without worrying what others think. He also acts like a matchmaker, noticing how she looks at Miles and nudging them to do a duet for the fall concert. 

It seems a little bit of an on-the-nose choice for Ruby to be drawn to music despite her Deaf family, but the film features self-aware jokes about what seems like an act of rebellion. Her parents can still appreciate rhythm and vibrations (her father has a penchant for the thumping bass of gangster rap). Ruby may be able to hear music, but when she tries to describe how she feels when singing, she cannot find the words. Instead, the signs, not the sounds, come to her easily, as she makes poetry out of her movements. 

Yet despite the originality of its characters, the film is held back by including a few too many cliches, principally by constraining its distinctive family dynamic within a paint-by-numbers teen-angst drama. Some of the plot beats are rather predictable, for instance how her choir teacher encourages her to apply for college and consider music school, or how Ruby’s school crush betrays her. One major subplot centers on her family’s fishing business, which relies on Ruby as a hearing deckhand, and it results in a predictable scene in which she must decide between being there for her family and pursuing her own passions. It plays out more or less exactly as expected, with heated arguments and tearful exchanges between parents and children, and we are left wishing that Heder added a little more originality as Ruby fights with her parents and wants to apply to college.

Vendôme Pictures / Pathé Films

In addition, for a film that is centered on a primarily Deaf family, there are a few too many gags that rely on sounds or on-the-nose music cues. The montages timed to rock songs and discussions of “It’s not my dream, it’s your dream” feel like they could take place in practically any sappy high school drama. There are moments that brush up against revelation, such as when Ruby’s teacher gets her to stop trying to “sound pretty” when she sings and embrace “ugly” sounds of raw emotion, or when her mother reveals how she had prayed Ruby would be deaf so that they could better connect. These moments are glimmers of something special as Heder plunges emotional depths, but then backs away rather than going further.

While CODA might not have radically different things to say in the coming-of-age genre, what it does say is communicated in a way many may have never seen before. Many of the cliches and plot contrivances are forgotten within genuinely emotional moments, when the heart and authenticity able to move viewers to tears even among more cynical thoughts. In one climactic scene where Ruby sings, the sound cuts out; we get to experience the moments from the parents’ point of view, as they can see how the music moves other people. It may hit all the basic plot beats and quirky Sundance cliches, but damn, does it hit them well; it sheds light on a joyful family and their little corner of existence. CODA is a crowdpleaser brimming with heart, buoyed by the swells of emotion as Ruby and her family realize they can understand one another perfectly. 

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