CODA exploded out of the gate when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Almost instantly, Apple Studios made a record-breaking $25 million deal for worldwide distribution. Fast forward to the 2021 Provincetown International Film Festival, and I was finally able to see CODA after much hype and buildup… and it is one of the best movies I have seen this year. It lived up to its reputation and more, delivering a wonderful coming-of-age present wrapped in a bow of musicality and specificity from the world of deaf culture.
CODA—which stands for children of deaf adults—dips us into the teenage life of Ruby (Locke & Key’s BAFTA-nominee Emilia Jones), a gifted teen who has acted as interpreter for her deaf family and their fishing business for as long as she can remember. They need a hearing deckhand on the boat at all times, and who better than Ruby? She is the only member of her family that has the use of her hearing. From the first scene, where Ruby sings along to a little radio, fishing in the vibrant water with her dad and brother, CODA establishes that Ruby has a love for music. The family dynamic acts as the heart of the film, building up chemistry that is undeniable.
Ruby’s dad, Frank (Troy Kotsur), seems to love rap music (“my whole ass is vibrating!), and he has a very passionate relationship with wife Jackie (Marlee Martin). Their sexual appetite is touched on several times throughout in a light and humorous way, between an early scene where Ruby accompanies them to the doctor for anti-fungal cream due to a skin rash, and another where Ruby has a visitor who hears Frank and Jackie making quite a lot of noise in the other room. Ruby’s brother, Daniel (Leo Rossi), calls her a ‘twat waffle’ in sign language—he is a bit jealous of the integral role that Ruby plays in their business, yet is always playful and loving in that brotherly kind of way. At the dinner table, music is rude, but Daniel’s Tinder is allowed—“Tinder is something we can all do as a family,” Jackie insists.
Frank, Jackie, Daniel, and Ruby are a tight-knit unit, but as Ruby begins exploring her passion for singing, it becomes clear that a choice must be made. She can choose to stick around as the business transforms into the “Fresh Catch Fisherman’s Co Op,” acting as the interpreter to bolster them to success as they have major money troubles. Alternatively, Ruby can pursue her singing talents, bolstered by her new choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), a man with an obvious ear for talent. As the bond with her teacher grows more defined, a distance starts to grow between Ruby and her family as she is torn in two contrasting directions.
Emilia Jones absolutely nails every aspect of Ruby’s character, fleshing her out into a complicated and compelling personality. For the role, Emily spent nine months learning American Sign Language, as well as singing lessons and learning how to operate a fishing trawler. Her hard work is reflective in the performance, which will no doubt be a career highlight for the young actress. Ruby’s love for her family is obvious—she sticks up for them in every facet of her daily life, including at school. A budding romantic relationship with Miles (Vikings actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, who can really sing!) is cute and simple, but it never takes center stage. I did love Miles and Ruby together, as their relationship blossoms the more that Ruby becomes invested in the world of music. Ultimately, CODA is a movie all about the familial bond, and finding your own identity when it is time to explore the outside world.
Writer/director Sian Heder, who chose to remake the French film The Belier Family, shifts the farm living of that original picture to the backdrop of the fishing world. Everyday American living, following your dreams, and the longing ache to please everyone are all topics tackled in CODA, but the most interesting and defining trait is the realistic portrayal of deaf culture. When Frank meets Miles for the first time, he gives the boy a lecture about “putting a helmet on the soldier,” complete with colorful sign language demonstration. A captivating choir concert rendition of “You’re All I Need to Get By” is shown through the lens of Ruby’s parents, where we experience it entirely in silence just as they do. It is obvious that much love and care went into the depiction of this world, as all on-set interpreters were CODAs themselves.
The ensemble cast meshes well together. I fully believed the core four at this film’s center were an actual real family. By the end, I was driven to tears at the sheer power of the acting and the believable bonds of love built between them. The rousing final song is nothing short of magical and feels so special. A crowd-pleasing, vibrant work of coming-of-age beauty, CODA reminds us that love and family comes above all else.
CODA screened at the 2021 Provincetown Film Festival. It will debut in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, Aug. 13.