Some people view “crowd-pleaser” as a dirty word, as if movies that aim for wide appeal are somehow lesser creations than ones targeting a more specific, more discerning audience. That’s poppycock. Great films come in all shapes, sizes, and demographics, and any of them should be so lucky as to deliver even half the warmth, humor, and representation of Siân Heder‘s coming of age film, CODA.
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is in her senior year of high school, but while other students are looking forward to college she knows that’s not in the cards for her. As the only hearing member of her family — her dad Frank (Troy Kotsur), mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are all deaf — she’s grown up as their connection to the world of the hearing. She’s been their interpreter since childhood and works a full shift on the family’s fishing boat each morning before school, and she knows that role needs to continue after graduation. Ruby’s given an unexpected wake up call, though, when her love of singing catches the ear of her school’s music teacher (Eugenio Derbez), and soon a possible door opens to a world beyond the only one she’s ever known.
CODA, which stands for child of deaf adults, hits all of the expected beats in a coming of age tale about someone growing up and realizing their wings need stretching, but the specifics of its family dynamic immediately stand it apart from the crowd. Happily, writer/director Heder also ensures the film delivers big laughs, real emotion, and an honest portrayal featuring deaf actors. The details may feel foreign, but it’s an immensely entertaining ride that speaks to the struggles and triumphs that so many young adults face with their first steps away from home.
The film is a remake of a French comedy from 2014 called La Famille Bélier, but in addition to a more nuanced approach to the humor this redo makes a major improvement in its casting. Specifically, while the deaf parents in the original are played by hearing actors, all three members of Ruby’s family are brought to life by deaf performers. The authenticity and representation are important, but it would be unfair to lose sight of the equally relevant truth that all three are fantastic actors. Matlin should be familiar to filmgoers, and it’s good seeing her embrace a more rough around the edges character than we’ve seen before, but Kotsur and Durant are equally strong. They argue, banter, and converse via ASL, and Heder lets entire conversations play out in sign language.
Jones (Locke & Key, 2020), a British actor who had to learn ASL for the role, gives a star-making turn in CODA. She’s a vibrant presence with strong comedic chops, but she’s equally effective in the film’s more serious and affecting moments too. The dreams of college and becoming a singer feel utterly unattainable, something familiar to anyone who’s ever thought big and beyond their circumstances, and you can almost hear Ruby’s heart breaking when she realizes they’ll have to remain as dreams.
It’s a sweet film filled with light and laughs, but Heder isn’t stingy with the heavier elements. One exchange between Ruby and her mother sees the young woman reveal for the first time her desire to sing, and Jackie’s reply stings. “If I was blind, would you want be a painter?” It’s devastating to Ruby as she just wants one thing for herself, and while Jackie almost immediately regrets it her frustration and fear of losing her daughter are equally present. Smaller beats abound as the family faces trouble on the small business front too, but it’s the third act where audience waterworks truly come into play. No spoilers here, but if you’re even remotely a fan of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” — and honestly, how could you not be — you’ll want to have some tissues ready.
Much of CODA’s comedy comes from a smart script and sharp performances, and while some of the humor is associated with the deaf characters it’s never derogatory or cruel. Like most families, the Rossis communicate in part through humorous digs and jokes at each other’s expense such as Ruby and Leo’s evolving series of creative insults spoken in sign language. She also earns some laughs by intentionally misinterpreting details during her dad’s doctor visit where she tells him he’s not allowed to have sex anymore. Of course, he gets Ruby back, albeit unintentionally, by enjoying some boisterous sex with his wife unaware that Ruby and her crush are in the room next door. Some minor laughs come courtesy of her music teacher despite Derbez playing things perhaps a little bigger than the rest of the cast’s more natural approach.
Like 2020’s under-appreciated Netflix film The Half of It, CODA takes an overly traditional setup and gives it a fresh spin that finds added weight in the details. It’s crafted as the kind of film that leaves viewers smiling and crying tears of joy, and it succeeds across the board. You’ll go into it confident that things will work out, and when they do you’ll feel far from shortchanged by the lack of surprise. It’s expected, but it’s shaped and executed with such clear love for its characters and the shared human experience. That’s enough to make it a winner any time, but in a world where many of us have spent the last year avoiding such groupings it’s a warm and welcome reminder of what was — and what will hopefully be again soon.