Film Reviews / Indie Film

CODA review: Dir. Sian Heder (2021)

Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA stands for ‘Child of Deaf Adults’ and, at its centre, the film follows Ruby (Emilia Jones), who’s the only hearing member of her deaf family and most of her life orbits the world of being an interpreter for her parents, whilst also working on their fishing boat, and trying to get an education.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

We begin within a usual morning for Ruby, following as she helps her brother and Dad in the fishing trawler, then selling the fish at the dock, witnessing their natural sibling teasing, and get to briefly hear her sing to keep herself occupied. Once the morning is out of the way, she heads off to school to the usual environment you’d expect there, an equal measure of teenage friends and foes, but we also see Ruby following her love for music, by signing up for the school choir but initially because a boy she likes (Miles, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) has also joined. At the end of the school day, we get to see more of Ruby in her family life as her parents pick her up after school in their car, but Dad is playing extreme-heavy-bass music outside the school, which – of course – embarrasses her. It’s your everyday life.

CODA is about family and discovering that everyone has their own place within the unit, but it’s also a very, very funny film, which finds a smart balance. Early on, when Ruby is auditioning for the choir, it does have some predictable situations: including she can’t sing in public, because everyone is looking at her. But seeing this is important and I connected, I had those self-esteem issues at that age, and the film is reflective of how judged you feel for anything you do. While the ‘moment’ isn’t always this literal, where would our characters be without an arc to overcome? So, while a few early scenes feel a tad forced, over time it settles down and pulls you in.

Another good thing about CODA is how Jones’ Ruby has genuine talent, with a fine singing tone once she relaxes and embraces the now. This is a film full of soul in several respects, including versions of Let’s Get It On, You’re All I Need to Get By, Both Sides Now and Starman by Bowie. It’d be easy to drown into cliché with certain songs, but these versions work and are performed naturally which makes every intention of director Heder feel right. One latter stand-out scene is particularly unique, as her parents are invited to a concert but obviously continue talking, in sign language, through the performance, because they can’t hear their daughter. It’s a poignant scene, especially when we join them from their perspective using silence and self-reflection that’s beautifully achieved.

There’s more than a spark of Brie Larson in Emilia Jones, who leads the ensemble cast with a candid performance full of heart and purpose. She doesn’t succumb to those around her and must be strong enough to then push everyone forward, whilst still taking on responsibility along the journey, and does so brilliantly. You also believe it’s her troublesome family, with strong, important portrayals from Marlee Matlin (her Mum Jackie), Troy Kotsur (her Dad Frank), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). There are also notable mentions to teacher Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) – who keeps the fire alive and helps her focus – and an entertaining performance from Amy Forsyth as her mate Gertie.

CODA is all about backing ordinary people with tough challenges, with additional comments on the world of fishing (work) limitations and growing up in America, just as people feel a loss of their individuality. You’ve got a fine essence of Good Will Hunting running through its veins as well, and there’s definitely more than one scene that’ll break you, in the best kind of way.

While we’ve had some deaf character awareness with the likes of the sublime Millicent Simmonds in A Quiet Place Part 1 and 2, and Riz Ahmed’s journey in Sound of Metal, but this is a refreshing take from a family perspective – as well as a coming-of-age drama – from Writer/Director Sian Heder that we haven’t seen before and all for the better. This is a proper crowd pleaser and also enlightening, smart, emotionally true to itself and naturally funny on all the right beats.

An absolute delight, and one of my favourites of the year so far!

Apple Original Films CODA comes to Apple TV+ on Friday, August 13. 

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