Ruby Rossi, the titular “child of deaf adults” in Sian Heder’s new film, CODA, lives a bifurcated life. Early in the morning, she works on her family’s fishing boat, sorting fresh-caught haddock from the boots that get stuck in their net and, as the only hearing member of the Rossis, helping translate sign language to vendors onshore. Then she goes to school, often so tired that she’ll fall asleep at her desk, to the bemusement of her teachers. When she’s shaken awake, she signs a startled “What’s wrong?” to no one in particular, her head still in the world she just left.
Heder wrote and directed CODA, a remake of a hit French film, and her most distinctive touches as a storyteller come in tiny, astute observations. Yes, you can slap trite labels on this movie: It’s a feel-good tale, an inspirational work filled with tears, emotional breakthroughs, and a dash of sly humor. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, generating enough buzz to be acquired by Apple TV+ for a record-breaking sum. So it arrives on streaming this weekend saddled with quite a bit of hype for a little indie movie. Even so, CODA is insightful and moving enough to be worth all the fuss.
Whereas Heder’s debut film, Tallulah, was interesting if overwrought, CODA finds the right balance of melodrama and mundane detail. The central conflict is that Ruby (played by Emilia Jones), who is her family’s conduit to the hearing world, discovers a passion for singing—an artform the other Rossis can’t really connect to. Heder’s script doesn’t turn Ruby’s realization into a dark dilemma that threatens to split the family apart. The writer simply wants to explore how the power of a community can cut both ways: Ruby’s family offers irreplaceable comfort, while sometimes (if inadvertently) limiting her ability to plant her feet in the wider world.
Ruby joins her high school’s choir mostly to impress a boy she has a crush on. When the imperious vocal teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) asks her to sing in front of his class, she flees, remembering the times she was tormented by students because they thought she “talked funny.” CODA’s crucial moment comes in a scene when the charismatic instructor finally unlocks Ruby’s talent by encouraging her to yell, appealing not to her joy but to her anger, and finally letting her channel her frustrations through art.
CODA avoids sinking into the treacly territory of many inspirational films; Ruby doesn’t have a particular problem that she needs to solve, and singing isn’t a magical fix for her difficulties. Heder knows there’s enough drama in depicting the nuances Ruby has to navigate, and in making every character around her feel like the furthest thing from a stereotype. Marlee Matlin, the only deaf actor to have won an Oscar, does unsurprisingly solid work as Ruby’s mother, Jackie; the less-well-known Troy Kotsur is a revelation as her father, Frank, a bearded grump whose affection for his daughter runs deep. Derbez, a comic actor who is one of Mexico’s most famous movie stars, gives a live-wire performance that doesn’t feel cartoonish—Bernardo is just there to help Ruby tap into her impulsive side.
Heder mines realistic tension from these rich characters bouncing off one another, as personal drama and workplace annoyances mount, until the predictable and yet satisfying final act—a set piece at a concert likely to choke up the most cynical viewer. CODA is both in theaters and available on streaming for Apple TV+ subscribers, making it widely available in homes. But despite its small scale, it’s a terrific cinematic experience, masterfully using sound (and sometimes the absence of it) to convey the specifics of Ruby’s relationship with her family and the gulf dividing their appreciation of music. CODA’s power would be blunted in any other medium.