What’s new, everyone? After premiering at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in January, CODA, the family film written and directed by Siân Heder (Netflix’s Tallulah), not only snagged the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award but was also acquired by Apple for $25 million. Having been highly anticipated since then, the film has remained generally beloved (and garnered a bit of a negative reception) in the wake of its August 13th release on Apple TV+. Named after the acronym that stands for Child Of Deaf Adults, it follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a seventeen-year-old CODA herself who acts as the interpreter for her hearing impaired family.
There are plenty of times when overhype can bog down a flick and leave viewers feeling disappointed. But this doesn’t apply for CODA, which is as heartwarming as it is formulaic. I know the latter adjective probably sounds like a bad thing, and in most cases, it would be. The utter sincerity with which Heder infuses the material, however, is what lets me forgive the fact that this makes no effort to subvert any Family Drama tropes. Aside from the emotional beats that are sure to hit you in the gut, it also aims for a surprisingly ribald sense of humor that will likely leave you cackling. They’re the sort of crude gags we’ve all seen before, but the movie puts a fresh twist on them by filtering them through the lens of deaf culture.
Furthermore, there’s something inherently compelling about watching typically conventional story beats—in this case, Ruby having to weigh her dream of singing against the demands of staying with her family as their interpreter and helping them out with their floundering fishing boat—unfold via the perspective of a marginalized demographic. With onscreen deaf representation being embarrassingly sparse in Hollywood, it’s fantastic to see content that depicts a significant amount of American Sign Language without constantly relying on a hearing player to repeat everything aloud, portrays its deaf characters as fleshed-out people with interests and struggles rather than blank slates who are defined solely by their disability, and features hearing impaired characters who are played by hearing impaired actors. This last point is particularly salient, considering the French movie upon which CODA is based, La famille Bélier, cast hearing actors as multiple deaf characters.
Supplementing the film are its exemplary leads, all of whom combine together to create a sense of kindred unity while delivering touching performances that underscore the individualities of their own roles. Jones in particularly is an undeniable star whom everyone needs to watch out for. Plus, I still find it amazing that she put in nine months to learn singing, ASL, and working a fishing trawler. Oh, and she’s British, so she also had to do an American accent on top of all that. As for Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, they all bring their A-game as mom Jackie, dad Frank, and brother Leo, respectively.
Noe, it isn’t as if CODA is without fault. There are bits and pieces that feel like they’re reaching for some corn: Eugenio Derbez’s role as Ruby’s music teacher who firmly belongs in an early 2000s sitcom, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo’s extraneous part as Ruby’s romantic interest, and the soundtrack that I personally found to be appropriate for the movie (it includes Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By,” The Shaggs’s “My Pal Foot Foot,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”) while others viewers took issue with it. I’ve also seen criticisms of the deaf representation in regard to the film boasting a hearing lead and surrounding her with deaf side characters. I understand why people would feel that way, but for me, the fully realized family dynamic and the authentic way that Ruby bonds with her kin in a few specific scenes is what achieves CODA’s high level of respect for the community it’s portraying. Admittedly, a version of this story with a deaf child and hearing relatives would have been interesting to watch, too.
This movie could have been such a mawkish mess, but Heder’s writing and directing shapes it into a family tale that you’ll care deeply about. Hopefully, Apple will promote the hell out of it once awards season rolls around. Make sure you tune into the 2 Cents Critic podcast, which is where I’ll be posting an episode with my spoilery thoughts on CODA.
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Windup score: 90/100