Written by: Sian Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant
The need to step up for your family’s sake has remained an unwanted cross to bear for children as they need to put their wants after what is best for the collective. Wanting to focus more on one’s individual aspirations should not come with the view of being selfish but it becomes difficult for it not to feel that way as displayed in the heartwarming and predictable CODA. It brings nothing new to this genre of storytelling but does provide a level of representation very much missing while nailing its emotional beats.
In the Massachusetts town of Gloucester, Ruby (Emilia Jones) lives her teenage life as the only non-deaf individual in her family, which includes her parents and older brother. She assists them when in need of communication with others but has her dream of making it as a vocalist. This would leave her family in the precarious situation of being without someone who can communicate on their behalf, especially when the fishing industry, which supports them, continues to struggle.
As stated before, CODA brings nothing necessarily fresh from a storytelling perspective as the story beats and nearly the dialogue could be telegraphed from a mile away but it still manages to leave a mark because of the emotional fortitude in which it delivers it all. The foil of Ruby can connect with many as she deals with the struggles of any teenager but that gets coupled with the massive responsibility thrust on her shoulders for the everyday wellbeing of her family members. Something inherently unfair but it comes with the cards dealt one needs to overcome. Therefore, this film follows her struggles in trying to balance this artistic pursuit while also being there for her family, which ultimately leads to all of the conflict.
Ultimately, the most heartbreaking aspect of the clashing aspirations of Ruby and her family’s disability comes from their inability to actually hear it. This becomes explicitly clear in the concert scene where the performance put on by the choir gets the admiration of all who could hear it and Ruby’s family just sits there in the silence looking at the expressions of others. This highlights the good sound design on display by the film in order to draw everyone into the experience of the Rossi family. This type of disconnect occurs not only with the family, but it can certainly be relatable to a whole host of teenagers who try to go a different way in their lives than what has been traditional in familial history. The lack of understanding and comprehension can be incredibly frustrating and it comes down to Ruby to find the right balance while still keeping the bonds that mean so much to her.
One of the more appealing aspects of CODA comes from not only having a movie empathetically tell a story about deaf individuals, but it does the very rare feat of casting individuals from that very community to portray the characters. Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, and Troy Kotsur all fall within the deaf community and portray the characters with the same disabilities within the film. This falls into the typical ire of when casting goes the other way where actors deflect from criticism for playing roles like the ones in this film, but considering these deaf actors rarely get any other opportunities because of their disability, perhaps they should be the ones to portray themselves at the very least. It’s truly not too much to ask for and I’m glad Matlin ensured this would be the case for this film through her advocacy.
Standing out as the brightest spot of the feature is Troy Kotsur, who delivers such a wily and sweet performance as the father of the family. Someone simply trying to provide and comprehend the ambitions of his daughter, he brings so much to this role and the narrative as a whole. From his hilarious emphasis when signing and then the incredibly heartwarming and perhaps tear-inducing truck bed scene, he just knocks it out of the park. Him receiving the notices he has for this role never fails to warm the heart seeing his difficulties in landing acting roles and he made sure to absolutely eat this role up.
Representative, simple, and still wonderfully heartwarming, CODA does what it needs to do narratively and leaves its mark. It definitely will not win any points for its originality, filmmaking capabilities, or technical achievements but it wins with hitting you in the feels, which certainly proved to be its goal from the very onset.