A teenage girl waves out of a car's passenger window, saying, "I Love You" in American Sign Language

REVIEW: “CODA”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 1 hour 51 min.
Director: Sian Heder
Writers: Sian Heder and Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Éric Lartigau, and Thomas Bidegain (of “La Famille Bélier”)
Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, and Amy Forsyth

By Valerie Kalfrin

Every family has its own language, a shorthand of inside jokes, nicknames, memories, and subtext. For the Rossi family of the heartwarming and funny drama “CODA” (2021), that’s layered through American Sign Language.

Streaming on Apple TV+, “CODA” on the surface examines what happens when a teenage girl, the only hearing person in a close-knit deaf family, discovers she has a gift for singing. Yet “CODA,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, also is about how children yearn to be independent and find their voice.

The title of “CODA” is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. That’s Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, “Locke & Key”), a New England teen who every morning helps her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur, “Wild Prairie Rose”), and her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant, “Switched at Birth”), on the family’s fishing trawler. Over the thunderous engine and the crash of the waves, Ruby belts out Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” She’s as oblivious to how beautiful she sounds as her father and brother are of her singing.

A young woman stands on the deck of a fishing trawler and looks out at sea. She has long auburn hair and wears a ballcap, a hoodie, and coveralls.
In “CODA,” Emilia Jones plays Ruby Rossi, the hearing child in a deaf family who learns she has a gift for song / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Back on the docks, she haggles in sign about the price they’ll receive for their catch — one of many times she’s interpreted for her family since she was a child. One day at high school, Ruby impulsively signs up for the choir to be in the same room as Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, “Vikings”), a guitar-playing boy on whom she has a crush.

Afraid to sing because no one’s heard her before, she surprises herself and her teacher (Eugenio Derbez, “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”) with her talent. He teams her with Miles to learn a duet and encourages her to audition for Berklee College of Music in Boston, spurring Ruby to think of her future in a way she hasn’t before.

Writer-director Sian Heder (“Orange Is the New Black”) based “CODA”on the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier.” (That film’s director and writers are listed in the writing credits.) Although Ruby is weary of being an interpreter, she also feels beholden to her parents, who consider her their liaison. Leo can lip-read, but her dad and especially her mom, Jackie (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, “Children of a Lesser God”), say he won’t catch every word.

One of the film’s strengths is how Ruby’s talent inspires her parents to grow, so that they view her brother as someone capable. He’s tired of feeling babied and has a voice, too, such as when he tells Ruby not to defer college out of obligation: “We’re not helpless.”

A twentysomething woman, a twentysomething man, and a woman and a man in their fifties stand and applaud proudly at a concert.
Attending a school concert in “CODA” are (from left) Ruby’s friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth); Ruby’s brother, Leo (Daniel Durant); her mom, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and her dad, Frank (Troy Kotsur). / Courtesy of IMDB.com

As Ruby, Jones gives a breakout performance, as much for her bluesy voice as the story’s emotional beats. She’s mischievous with her friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth, “Coyote”) and in some of her translations, yet alternately bold and shy, a girl with a world of weight on her shoulders.

Even though some cruel teens mock Ruby’s family because of their deafness, another strength of the film is how the movie never does. When her parents pick her up at school, and her dad blasts gangster rap to feel the vibrations of the bass, Ruby cringes just like any teenager would. She’s also ready to die of embarrassment when she comes home with a friend to discover her parents having sex.

Matlin and Kotsur have great comedic timing, and the two of them still being hot for each other is something that Ruby fails to appreciate because she’s been cocooned in her family’s perspective for so long.  She remembers peers making fun of her when she learned to speak because she mimicked her parents’ voices. It takes an observer like Miles to note how special it is to see parents in love — and how amazing Ruby is, interpreting with such confidence.

As Ruby’s teacher, Derbez has the blend of tough love and encouragement that you’d want in a mentor in a film like this. He’s curious that Ruby is afraid she’s no good because no one has heard her sing before. He tells her how David Bowie once said that Bob Dylan’s voice sounded like sand and glue; she doesn’t.

A teenage girl with auburn hair and a red sweater, her arms crossed over her chest, sings onstage as a man accompanies her on the piano.
Ruby (Emilia Jones), accompanied by her teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), performs for a special audience in “CODA” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Jackie originally dismisses Ruby’s interest in music as teenage rebellion. “If I were blind, would you want to paint?” she asks. Yet she’s also proud of Ruby, as Matlin conveys in a poignant heart-to-heart about Jackie’s own fears, that Ruby being able to hear would prevent them from being close.

Heder puts the audience in Ruby’s and her family’s shoes, in one scene letting the sound fall away at a concert so we can experience it the way they do. They applaud when everyone else does, inattentive in the silence at first. Then they notice the joy on people’s faces as Ruby sings. One woman wipes away tears.

It’s similar to how Ruby initially can’t describe how singing makes her feel. She signs it instead, ending with a person in flight, a lovely moment where she bridges both of her worlds. The stirring climax, with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” might make viewers reach for tissues with a smile.

There are many ways to communicate, “CODA” reminds us. Many languages of love.

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