Sometimes a movie so successfully plunges you into its world that it completely engulfs you in a lived-in experience. From the gorgeous, scenic opening moments of CODA, you can almost smell the Atlantic salt air and pungent scent of the daily catch. The movie transports you to Gloucester, Massachusetts and lovingly drops you into the life of one family.
Seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is what the title of the movie refers to—a child of deaf adults. She is the only hearing member of her immediate family. A senior in high school, Ruby lives with mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Every morning before school even begins, Ruby works with her brother and father on their fishing boat off the coast. As the family’s sole interpreter, they have come to rely on her, and she feels the weight of familial responsibility more than most high schoolers.
When Ruby joins the school choir, her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) notices that Ruby has a unique vocal talent. “There are plenty of pretty voices with nothing to say. Do you have something to say?” he asks. He works with her and encourages her to apply to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a move that would take her away from the family that not only loves but desperately needs her. On the surface, this coming-of-age story is that simple and straightforward. But writer/director Sian Heder weaves a beautiful, nuanced and complex tale buoyed by delicate and deft performances.
Although specifically about a Deaf family, the story of a child wanting to form her own identity outside of her parents is universally relatable. “I’ve never done anything without my family before,” Ruby tells Bernardo. The growing pains as a child leaves home and a parents’ reluctance to let her go are quite literally tales as old as time.
CODA, which won four prizes at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival including the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, refuses to make Jackie, Frank or Leo one-dimensional saints which movies about people with disabilities do far too often. Jackie and Frank have clearly relied on Ruby too much. They even need her to go to intimate doctor appointments with them so she can very uncomfortably act as a translator. When Ruby tells her mom she loves to sing, Jackie dismisses it as some adolescent act of rebellion. “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” she scoffs. Leo loves his sister but cruelly refers to her as “Saint Ruby” and resents that his parents think they need her to survive. “Our family was fine before you were born,” he tells her during one contentious argument. Both comments are such punches in the gut they will leave you reeling.
Most of the humor is supplied by Jackie and Frank, who perhaps don’t have proper parental boundaries some of the time. “Tinder is something we can do as a family,” Jackie says as she peppers Leo with questions about his dating profile. There are also moments of incredibly raw honesty. Jackie, whose mom never learned ASL, confesses that she hoped Ruby would be deaf. “I thought I would fail you. That being deaf would make me a bad mom,” she tells her daughter.
It’s no surprise that Matlin is terrific. The Oscar-winner has been knocking it out of the park in both television and movies since she won for Children of a Lesser God when she was just 21. Durant is equally fantastic as a guy eager to prove he can do much more than what society and his parents think he’s capable of. Derbez hits just the right note as the supportive yet demanding teacher who won’t let Ruby use her family as an excuse. As a man who has had people misjudge him his whole life, Kotsur will break your heart. But CODA truly rests on Jones’ very capable shoulders. She’s such a compelling screen presence: Ruby’s inner turmoil is palpable.
Gloucester and the Massachusetts north shore have been the setting for several memorable movies including 2000’s The Perfect Storm and 2016’s Manchester by the Sea. Gloucester is an equally vibrant backdrop for CODA. This hardworking family consistently struggles financially. Their lives are tied to the fickle fishing industry. Shot on location, CODA gets the small details right, from the faded Bruins sweatshirt and Red Sox baseball cap to the local store-brand food on the dinner table. But it also doesn’t fall prey to the curse of making a movie set in Massachusetts. There’s no dreaded faux Kennedy accent. (I live in Massachusetts and can assure you that very few people actually talk like that).
More than any movie I can recall, CODA brings viewers into the Deaf experience of this family. When Ruby and her duet (and romantic) partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) perform “You’re All I Need to Get By” at the high school concert, we hear what Jackie, Frank and Leo hear—which is nothing. All they can go by is the reaction of the other parents in the audience. It’s an insightful, eye-opening moment.
By the time the movie reaches its poignant, beautiful conclusion, I defy anyone to have a dry eye. CODA is about letting go and letting your loved ones soar.
Director: Sian Heder
Writer: Sian Heder
Starring: Marlee Matlin, Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth
Release Date: August 13, 2021 (Apple TV+)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).