Successful as both a touching family drama and a coming-of-age film, Sian Heder’s CODA provides a sentimental look at family obligations as well as personal passions with touching performances from the entire ensemble.
Emila Jones stars as Ruby Rossi, the sole hearing member of her family. Her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and father Frank (Troy Kotsur) work on the family fishing boat while her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) does much of the administrative work. Acting as the interpreter for her family, Ruby discovers her love and talent for singing through her choir teacher Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez). Ruby finds herself torn between her own desires and her increasing obligations to her family.
The three deaf characters are portrayed by deaf actors, allowing the realism to permeate. Ruby never elicits sympathy for her situation because she views it as a part of her life. Despite the embarrassments, she never expresses shame for her family, rather the exhaustion of being the family interpreter. Ruby’s desire to sing amidst her family’s inability to enjoy it is a constant source of struggle.
Jones dominates the narrative and is fully present. Nary a frame goes by outside of Ruby’s perspective and Jones is more than capable of commanding attention. Ruby is unassuming, plainly dressed and wants to blend in, but is forced into the limelight by both her circumstances and her talent. Jones plays this coyness well and makes it easy for the audience to root for her.
The rest of the family also make an impression. Kotsur is an imposing presence with his oversized beard and lanky features, but his warmth and uncouth nature endear him to the audience as well as his daughter. Some of the more touching scenes in the film are one-on-one with Jones and Kotsur, especially a standout scene Frank holds Ruby’s throat to feel her singing.
Matlin is the most famous face but keeps her emotions in check. Her role as a mother is one that Matlin relishes and acts protectively polite with Ruby. She has the usual struggles between mother and daughter but never comes across as nagging or annoying. Durant gets to have the most emotion as a young, womanizing man who is more angry at the world for not accepting him, rather than being mad that he can’t hear. Derbez also shines as Ruby’s vibrantly charasmatic and empathetic mentor.
Heder’s screenplay never pities the family and portrays most of the community as one that is willing to accept the family. The narrative never shifts towards after-school special, but does hinge on some overly-dramatic leaps which stretch believeability. Regardless, the gentleness of Heder’s direction allows the family to be shown for how great they are, and not how great they could be.
CODA is a heartwarming tale of acceptance and obligations with wonderful performances and a light touch.