One of the most widely praised independent films of the year, CODA (dir. Sian Heder) is a poignant, family-centered story about the difficulties faced by a deaf family and their hearing daughter, who must decide between pursuing her love for music or helping her family’s ambitious new business venture. Though it sounds like a highly specific scenario on paper, the emotional beats driving the narrative are things that everyone can understand.
The film’s main narrative follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), who has grown up as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) alongside her deaf brother Leo (Daniel Durant). The family fishes for a living, with Ruby helping out on the boat each day before school. When the latest school year begins, she decides to take up choir because of her love for singing on the boat and listening to music in her free time. Though intimidating at first, she quickly forms a connection with the choral teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) who gives her increasing confidence in her singing talents. And lucky for her, she gets paired up for a duet with the boy she had her eye on from the beginning, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
While Ruby is busy with choir practice and getting to know Miles, her father (Troy Kotsur) and brother are struggling with bringing in enough funds from their fishing business as restrictions place them in a tough spot because of their deafness. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) also discourages Ruby from picking up a hobby that the whole family cannot participate in. Mr. V then tells Ruby she should audition for Berklee College of Music, and offers to give her extra lessons to prepare for her audition. Ruby then is being pulled in two wildly different directions– following her heart to pursue something her family can have no part in, or staying with her family to help keep them afloat as their interpreter without being entirely happy herself.
The narrative here is entirely realistic and quite tense as so much hangs in the balance. Ruby’s decision will impact her family significantly, with her being their only conduit to the hearing, non-signing world around them. The stakes here are set up incredibly well, driving the story forward effectively with a powerful emotional core that is tied to this very lovable and close-knit family. One key barrier to the family’s success is the hearing-centricity of everything they have to encounter on a daily basis, with no one besides them we see in this film able to communicate through sign language. It is an endless battle they must face that provides constant conflict, with no clear answers besides the one answer that will hold Ruby back from her dreams.
The sound design here also stands out, with sound of course being a critical part of the film’s narrative. The sound is not superfluous, generally letting the diagetic sound speak for itself. Silence is critical here, especially during the scenes with the family communicating. The film isn’t afraid to let hearing audiences sit in silence or near silence for minutes at a time, and that silence only makes the film’s impact even stronger. During a key point in the film, the sound drops out entirely, giving hearing audiences a look at the other side and showing the complete alienation that Ruby’s family feels when witnessing her newfound talent for singing. This a very creative way to use film as a medium to bridge the gap between people of different experiences and abilities.
The final scenes that show Ruby’s ultimate decision may not be surprising, but they tug at your heartstrings nonetheless. In the end the film reminds us of the importance of family while acknowledging all the hurdles that have to be overcome to achieve true family unity, and makes a convincing argument for the necessity of simultaneous communication.
There is a lot to reflect on after viewing this film, but it is not a heavy or difficult watch. It handles the very real-world issues it addresses in a way that is respectful and truthful to its deaf subjects, with lightness and humor along the way. With so many films over the years treating deafness as a triviality or butt of a joke, this film finally provides a worthwhile piece of representation that will hopefully encourage more films in future to honor people of all different abilities.
Though there may be some high school cliches and a college application plotline that feels formulaic, there is a lot to love in this story. The stakes are set high, the characters are fleshed out, and the production value is solid, making CODA a great, laidback watch for those looking for something unique.
CODA is now available on Apple TV+.