The title for CODA is a fascinating play on words: In the context of this film, its most obvious use is an.acronym–Child of Deaf Adults. But a coda is also a musical term, representing the end of a musical composition, wherein the piece finds its resolve. As a dramedy, CODA centers on a teenage girl’s coming of age. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is not only the child of deaf parents (and sister to a deaf brother), she is also at a spiritual crossroads, where the current fade-out could signal the beginning of something great.
As the film opens, Ruby’s life doesn’t seem destined to go anywhere. Her family runs a struggling fishing boat, where Ruby puts in hard labor and acts as liaison to the hearing world. She’s also a high school senior, although most of her day is spent slumped and snoring at her desk. To make matters worse, Ruby’s small town regards her family as a weird little group of disabled misfits. Her parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) only add to the rumors with their bawdy, eccentric behavior. Meanwhile, Ruby’s older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is good-hearted, but also sullen and distant. He’s grown weary of Ruby as the family’s savior.
In these opening scenes, we get the sense that Ruby could probably trudge along like this for decades. Her hometown seems like one of those places where nobody ever goes anywhere, and Ruby could certainly exemplify that rudderless existence. That course instantly changes when she decides to sign up for the school choir. Turns out, Ruby has a soulful, satin-smooth voice, one that she’s comfortably refined in a household of deaf people. Initially, Ruby joins to follow a cute guy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) into the band room, but it’s not long before she realizes she may’ve found her true calling.
Lucky for her, the choir is led by one of those movie teachers with boundless reserves of talent and patience. Sure, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) wears a prickly outer shell, made out of Simon Cowell putdowns. But, like Cowell, Mr. V knows the real deal, and he quickly resolves to get Ruby into the prestigious Berklee College of Music. At the same time, her parents worry how their faltering business will continue without Ruby’s ability to translate their sign language. Even more dire: How can they make such a huge investment in a singing voice they’ve never heard?
CODA will invite superficial comparisons to last year’s Sound of Metal. Both films delve into the deaf community, and place an aspiring musician smack in the middle of it. The key difference is Riz Ahmed’s rock drummer had to process the shock of his encroaching disability, while Ruby must to come to terms with the fact she is not deaf. Her hearing and fluency in ASL make her indispensable to her family, but those same skills also alienate her from them. “If I was blind,” her mother asks, “would you be a painter?” Is that cold? Yes. But it also reveals the deep pain and guilt of a mother who can’t truly delight in her daughter’s greatest talent.
One thing CODA definitely shares with Metal is its display of primo acting talent. Like Ahmed, Jones seamlessly integrates signing into her performance, often with great passion. Her singing voice acts as a supporting character in of itself: Ruby’s rendition of “You’re All I Need” is mouse-meek around her crush, but goes straight to the rafters when nobody can hear it. Jones hits all the right emotional notes, and is the best thing in whole movie. That said, Matlin (an Oscar-winner in her own right) plays against her norm, giving Ruby’s mom a wacky, bawdy vibe that ultimately makes her endearing. Kotsur serves as her perfect soulmate: He’s randy and hot-headed, but there’s never any doubt that Frank Rossi loves his daughter. Derbez gets stuck with the thankless Mr. Holland/Dead Poet Society teacher role, but he does imbue it with all the power and sincerity he has. As a result, Ruby’s growing drive to do better always feels earned.
That actually kinda sums up the whole of CODA: The skill and patience present on both sides of the camera help conceal the fact that, aside from the twist of a deaf family, this is a pretty conventional coming of age flick. (Sound of Metal takes a few more narrative risks, especially toward its end.) Ruby has to gain a deeper love and empathy for her family, while also setting off on her own path. That’s the high-wire act every teen in every movie like this has to face: 18 marks a weird, beautiful, transformative moment in life, and it’s tough to know whether to look forward or backward. CODA goes where you would expect, but that also doesn’t keep the film from being successful. It’s often funny, occasionally moving, and even sometimes bittersweet. If you’re looking for a lighter drama, this is well worth a look.
111 min. PG-13. Apple+.