Do you have something to say?
It’s a coming-of-age film like any other. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a bullied senior in high school ready to choose her elective when the boy she has a crush on (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo‘s Miles) is overheard picking choir. On a whim—and to her best friend’s (Amy Forsyth‘s Gertie) shock—Ruby states the same. It’s not as though singing is something she dislikes. She loves to sing. The problem, as her choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez‘s Mr. V.) is about to discover, stems from her lack of confidence to do so in front of people due to having no idea if she’s any good. Now you’re wondering, “How?” Parents and siblings revel in telling us “not to quit our day job” when we’re bad at something. Well, hers are deaf.
Writer/director Sian Heder opens CODA (an English-language reimaging of French hit La Famille Bélier) with a perfect example of this issue in practice. The sun has barely risen with Ruby, her father (Troy Kotsur‘s Frank), and brother (Daniel Durant‘s Leo) on their trawler, winding up a net of fish while she belts out the song playing on the radio. She sings to her heart’s content without a word edgewise because the trio doesn’t need silence to communicate via American Sign Language. This is where Ruby is most assured—not on the water, but amongst this tight-knit group rounded out by her mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin). She’ll get in the face of any man on the dock who tries to cheat them, but sing to her classmates? No way.
This year is therefore Ruby’s awakening as an independent woman outside the role she was thrust into at birth being their family’s sole hearing member. She became their protector as the only person in their small community who could give them a real voice. But it was always at the expense of her own whether anyone realized it or not. Her family relied on her. They needed her. And they ultimately became Ruby’s identity. The kids inevitably mocked her when she was younger because she spoke like a deaf person having been raised in a culturally deaf household without yet assimilating to the speaking world. Mr. V. telling her she’s good enough to attempt winning a scholarship at Berklee obviously conjures mixed emotions as a result.
To Frank and Jackie, the timing couldn’t be worse. Ruby is already stretched thin trying to survive high school despite waking every morning at 3:00am to listen for the CB radio and help pull in the fish. Add the potential wrinkle of Frank and Leo breaking from the usual auction to create their own co-op with help from the other fishermen who’ve never tried getting to know them (not that they ever sought to take that first step either) and Ruby quickly discovers she might be more important to their livelihood as translator than their boat is as their means of transportation. Preparing for her audition means practicing with both Miles and Mr. V. after hours and doing so means compromising the rest. It’s a lot to juggle.
What sets CODA apart from similar dramas is the central evolution not proving Ruby’s alone. Yes, she must figure out what it is she wants and muster the courage to take it, but her family must also force themselves to be cognizant of the fact she has an opportunity in front of her that only works if they’re willing to let her go. Some of that is them reconsidering their reluctance to join the community around them (which can seem a bit problematic in hindsight considering it places the onus on them rather than their neighbors) and some of it is listening to Leo’s desire to lead them across that bridge in a way that makes their value known. This is uncharted territory for them all.
And it’s resonantly set to Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” with Ruby and Miles channeling Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye for Mr. V.’s school concert showcase. The words mean something in relation to this burgeoning romance (handled quite well in how it flips the table on what constitutes an “ideal family” and how so much can be learned by simply talking to people who are different than you), but they take on even more weight when read in context with Ruby’s place in her parents’ hearts. Sometimes it takes heartbreak to really understand what we mean to each other because it’s only through that pain that we can accept our part in its creation through taking those we love for granted.
Pair a scene where Frank asks his daughter to sing while he feels the vibrations in her neck after finally getting why Leo wants Ruby to leave (to selfishly shoulder the responsibility forced upon her and selflessly see her succeed at doing what she loves) with the Berklee audition (where she finally signs while singing in heartwarming fashion to make waiting so long for her to do such an obvious act meaningful) and any notion of conventionality disappears. Nobody is going to remember how familiar the journey was if you can bring down the house while also sticking the landing where it comes to advancing your four main characters’ lives. All we’re going to be talking about when we leave the theater is that melancholic feeling of hope.
That and the performances. Derbez stands out as the singular, cultured soul amidst rough, blue-collar fishermen while serving as Ruby’s guardian angel, pushing her past the limits her mind built to prevent her from spreading her wings. Jones is wonderful as the lead struggling to balance two worlds without succumbing to the guilt formed by choosing between them. Durant is great in a complex role deserving more space than he’s ultimately afforded. And Matlin and Kotsur steal so many scenes with an infectious, childlike zeal for life’s pleasures. That we get to know the Rossi family without too many sensory tricks pitting sound versus silence (those Heder provides are effective, though) only adds to the film’s success by ensuring they’re always seen as human beings rather than “other.”
 Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant in “CODA,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on August 13, 2021.
 Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Emilia Jones in “CODA,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on August 13, 2021.
 Eugenio Derbez in “CODA,” premiering globally on Apple TV+ on August 13, 2021.