A feel-good dramedy with a twist on the coming of age story, ‘CODA’ is familiar but effective
The winner of Sundance Audience and Critics awards (as well as the opening night film of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival), Sian Heder’s CODA (an acronym for “Children of Deaf Adults”) might seem traditional at first but quickly reveals itself to be anything but.
CODA opens with a familiar look at life for a lower-middle-class family in the New England area, but the first lines of dialogue emphasize just what makes CODA so special. Sign language commands, expletives, and humor fly between father Frank (Troy Kotsur), son Leo (Daniel Durant), and daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones). Yet while Frank and Leo are both deaf, Ruby is the only hearing member of the Rossi family. Frank, Leo, and matriarch Jackie (Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin) depend on Ruby to communicate with the outside world as best as possible. But Ruby has dreams of her own that could take her away from her family’s world in more ways than one.
The story of familial deafness is rare, especially in this film with its predominantly deaf main cast. It is a refreshing and unique take on a family melodrama, but it also doesn’t drive the plot of the movie. Instead, it just becomes part of the family’s dynamic. With CODA’s premiere coming not long after Sound of Metal and A Quiet Place, the film could’ve felt repetitive. Instead, it is refreshing. No one treats the inability to hear as a deficit to their lives. In fact, the family is more often burdened by the intricacies of fishing laws in Massachusetts. It’s a smart and unique way to present communication in new ways.
Where CODA struggles most is in the Ruby character. Her plotline is almost too traditional and inconsequential to fit into the care of the other side of the film. Ruby discovers that she is an incredibly talented singer, and her passion for music is aided by choir director Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) and burgeoning love interest Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Ruby eventually has to decide whether she’d rather follow her dreams of singing by going to college in Boston, or stay at home and help her family.
Despite the incredible talent of Emilia Jones, I found myself rooting against her character. While the Rossi family doesn’t need Ruby, she is putting a burden on her family that is almost unfair. Ruby’s actions almost bankrupt the family’s fishing operation in one critical scene. Some of the decisions made by writer-director Heder feel straight out of a Disney Channel movie, with a young girl deciding whether to follow her dreams and her new boyfriend or stay at home. Jones, who is currently starring in the Netflix series Locke & Key, can sell the internal struggle. But the movie is best when focusing on the Rossi family as a whole.
As Frank and Jackie attempt to start a new business and as Leo falls for a hearing woman, I wanted to see more of this family. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur have incredible chemistry and some raunchy scenes between the two feel so refreshing in a time where too many family-focused movies seem to neuter the parents into sexless overlords. The parents are as flawed as the kids, but Heder’s insistence on Ruby as the main character makes CODA all about the least interesting plot in the cast. I would much rather watch a movie about deaf fishermen trying to overthrow a conglomerate than a feel-good teen romance.
CODA isn’t bad at all, but it hits notes that are unnecessary in the long run. At 111 minutes in length, I wish the balance between the family was more even. Instead, the traditional plotting overwhelms the originality by the movie’s end.