By Timothy Rawles
What this world needs right now is a great movie that washes over the soul and gets your feet tapping all at the same time. CODA, which premiered at Sundance this week does just that, and then some.
CODA, which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, is a coming of age story about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a 17-year-old high school student, who isn’t exactly popular because her social game is consumed by time helping her deaf parents and brother on fishing excursions; the livelihood of the family.
Ruby, unlike her parents, can hear, actually very well, and her love of music drives her to join the choir at school.
Her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) recognizes something special in her voice right away and decides to mentor her with a chance at getting her into the Berkley music department on a scholarship. But that means her commitment to her family, as the only one who can connect them with the hearing world, is put in jeopardy; they have relied on her as their interpreter since she was old enough to do so.
As with most of these types of films; think Bend it Like Beckham, Billy Elliot, or even Dirty Dancing, the conflict comes when the maturing protagonist finds their own path and begins to distance themself from the family. But in Ruby’s case, she is literally the lifeline of communication from her parents to the world.
Director Siân Heder has pieced together a patchwork of coming-of-age movie tropes but manages to, thanks to fine performances by everyone, elevate the standard with heartfelt diplomacy and doses of crowd-pleasing serotonin.
Jones, who appears regularly in TV roles, is a rising star and is completely charming as Ruby. Her ability to make the character vulnerable but empowered can be heartbreaking at times, but never cheap.
Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as Ruby’s worried mother wears her heart on her face and reminds us that helicopter parents can land somewhere between protective and selfish, but eventually, find common ground.
Ruby’s sibling, Leo, played by Daniel Durant gets most of the drama as the deaf older brother who can’t prove to his parents he is capable of leading them because his sister has the voice. Durant is a powerful actor who nearly steals the show. But it is Troy Kotsur, playing Frank, who takes that prize.
As a deaf father and hard-working provider, Kotsur manages to be both hilarious and sentimental, providing one of the film’s most poignant, tear-jerking moments.
CODA isn’t trying to re-invent the teenage drama story. In fact, it can slip into some shopworn derivatives from others of its ilk. But praise should be given to the unique storyline and especially the cast who make this film one of the best heart-bursting and joy-filled movies to come along in the last 10 years.
CODA premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 28, 2021. Apple has acquired the right to the movie but has not given a wide release date.