CODA
The coming-of-age tale, about a child of deaf parents, won
all three Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Picture.

Above, left to right: Actors Emilia Jones (daughter), Troy Kotsur (father Frank), Marlee Matlin (mother Jackie), and Daniel Durant (brother Leo).

Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, CODA, a heartwarming coming-of-age comedy-drama about a teenage girl navigating her way through high school, life, and growing up as the only hearing member of a deaf family—the film’s titular acronym stands for “child of deaf adults”—has racked up critical acclaim and a slew of awards. It can add three Academy Awards to its long list of accolades. Now streaming on Apple TV+, CODA is a must-see!

At first glance, you might think that writer/director Sian Heder’s CODA is all about a predictable plot you’ve seen countless times before. After all, it tells a pleasantly familiar coming-of-age tale, following a talented small-town girl from modest means with dreams to study music in the big city. There’s an idealistic teacher, a winsome crush, moving rehearsal montages, a high-stakes audition, and naturally, a family reluctant about their offspring’s ambitions. Again—and only at first glance—you might think you already know everything about this feel-good recipe.

CODA will prove you wrong. It’s not that Heder doesn’t embrace the aforesaid conventions for all their comforting worth—she does. But by twisting the formula and placing this recognizable story inside a new, perhaps even groundbreaking setting with such loving, acutely observed specificity, the writer/director pulls off nothing short of a heartwarming miracle with her film, the title of which is an acronym: Child of Deaf Adult. 

Above: Teenage daughter (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of the Rossi clan, serves as the family’s sign-language-proficient interpreter.

Played by the exceptional Emilia Jones, who is blessed with exceptional pipes, the gifted teen happens to be one, navigating the intricacies of her identity, passions, and familial expectations, trying to reconcile them without hurting anyone’s feelings, including her own.

Admittedly, CODA is adapted from the French film La Famille Bélier, so the idea of it isn’t entirely novel. What’s new here—and it makes all the difference in the world—is the cast. While the family in the original were played by hearing cast members (with the exception of the brother brought to life by deaf actor Luca Gelberg), they are all portrayed by real-life deaf performers in Heder’s movie — a sensational group consisting of legendary Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, scene-stealing Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant — infusing her adaptation with a rare, inherent kind of authenticity.

Jones is the 17-year-old Ruby, a hardworking high-schooler in the coastal Cape Ann’s Gloucester who habitually wakes up at the crack of dawn every day to help her family—her father Frank (Kotsur) and brother Leo (Durant) and mother Jackie (Matlin)—at their boat and newly found fish sales business. Heder is quick to give us a realistic taste of Ruby’s routine. Accustomed to being her family’s sign-language-proficient interpreter out in the world as the only hearing member of the Rossi clan, she spends her days translating every scenario imaginable two ways: at town meetings, at the doctor’s office, and at the boat where a hearing person must be present to notice the signals and coastal announcements.

Above: The cast of CODA accepts the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Award on February 27, 2022. Pictured left to right: Eugenio Derbez (music teacher), Marlee Matlin (mother), Daniel Durant (brother to Ruby), Troy Kotsur (father), and Emilia Jones (daughter Ruby).

What Ruby has feels so balanced and awe-inspiring that it takes a while to recognize just how exhausting the whole arrangement is for the young girl, even though she makes it look easy with maturity and a sense of responsibility beyond her years. For starters, she is all too aware of everything private about her parents, often including their medical conditions, and (to her riotous terror), sex life. When the hearing world becomes cruel or belittling, she steps in, almost with protective instincts, always prioritizing them over herself. 

But when Ruby joins the school choir and discovers her talent for singing, it throws off her balance and puts her at odds with her family, especially when she decides to apply to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, adopting a rehearsal schedule that often clashes with her duties in the family business. Complicating the matters further is a fellow singer and romantic interest named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) , a shy kid with a genuine admiration for Ruby.

Most of all, Heder makes us see and believe that the Rossis are a real family with real chemistry, with real bonds and trials of their own, both unique and universal just like any other family. What Ruby’s chosen path unearths is the distinctiveness of those everyday battles. Would her sound-driven talent put a distance between Ruby and the rest of the Rossis? What would the world look like for the quartet if Ruby chose to leave? Through a number of deeply generous and tearful scenes—but especially a pair that play like each other’s mirror images—Heder spells out the answers openhandedly. During one, all sound vanishes while Ruby sings in front of her nearest and dearest, making us perceive her act from the point of view of the non-hearing. During the other, featuring a well-chosen track that might just melt even the frostiest of hearts, sound doesn’t matter at all. Because Heder ensures that we see the boundless love that’s there in their shared language.

Now Streaming on Apple TV +