By Marc S. Sanders
CODA is a film directed by Sian Heder that focuses on a New England fisherman family known as the Rossis. There is Frank, the dad, Jacki, the mom, Leo, the son, and then there is Ruby, the daughter. Frank, Jacki and Leo are deaf. Ruby is not. Ruby is the family interpreter by default. She’s content with holding the title, but as she is close to finishing high school, it’s seeming less and less fair. That’s the conflict at play with CODA. At times, it’ll make you laugh hysterically and it’ll also make you cry for multiple reasons. You’ll cry as Ruby breaks free from her reserved lifestyle and shyness, and you’ll also cry because Ruby seems likely to miss out on a lifetime of opportunity with her god given talent of singing.
Ruby is portrayed by Emilia Jones. Watch out for this actor. She will be the next big sensation. It amazes me that she was not nominated for an Academy Award. Jones operates on so many levels in this film. She learned fluent sign language for the role, in addition to singing gorgeous harmonies, and operating a fishing boat. Oh yeah. She has to act the role too, and Ruby Rossi has got to be one of the best protagonists of the last 10 years in film. She’s an absolute hero.
Ruby follows a rigid routine of waking up at 3:00am every day. She goes out on the boat with Frank and Leo to bring in fish to sell on the dock later in the day. It’s practically necessary to have her there as the one hearing person out in the open sea. From there, she races her bike over to school. She’s only adding to her plate when she opts to join the school choir to be close to a school crush named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
The problem is that Ruby is incredibly shy. So, when the music teacher known as Mr. V (a brilliantly energetic Lonnie Farmer) requests she sing solo following a long line up of students ahead of her, she retreats in fear. Mr. V knows there’s something there though, and he gradually uncovers the singing voice Ruby never realized she had. Suddenly, he’s proposing the idea of preparing an audition where she could attend the Berklee College of Music. Ruby is reluctant at first, but Mr. V instills confidence in her talents. However, he doesn’t stand for her tardiness at private rehearsals either. He demands she takes this seriously, even if she has to tend to her family. He’ll also make her tough, not willing to let her surrender to those that tease and bully her at school. I swear that Lonnie Farmer must be a music teacher on the side. What an inspiring individual he portrays. He’s hilariously intimidating in his classroom, but loved by his students in this film. He should have gotten an Oscar nomination as well, and he ranks up there with other celebrated teacher characters in film history. Completely unforgettable.
The Rossis are in the middle of a crisis. The dock where they keep their boat and sell their fish supply is charging outrageous fees to all of the fisherman. What makes it harder for this family though is the communication barriers they encounter. Frank (Troy Kotsur) relies on Ruby to speak on his behalf, even cursing them out when necessary. In response to the challenge, Jacki (Marlee Matlin) starts to sell their fish privately to circumvent around the overbearing-imposed taxes. Yet, she also depends on Ruby to speak on her behalf during a news interview or with customers. On the other hand, Leo (Daniel Durant) insists that Ruby should follow her own path. Leo reminds everyone that just because he’s deaf doesn’t mean he’s dumb and he can handle the business.
CODA is a coming-of-age picture. While the title may stand for “child of deaf adults,” Heder’s film focuses further away from deafness being an obstacle as the film moves along. It lends more attention to Ruby’s dilemma of not being able to be in three places at once. She’s only living a different life than that of her family, and that’s a problem I’d argue happens for most of us. Eventually, we all have to leave our nests
It becomes problematic when she has to deal with doctor visits on behalf of her parents where she embarrassingly has to explain to them the doctor says not have sex in order to heal their jock itch. Frank and Jacki have sex in the house, completely unaware of how loud they are while Miles is over to practice singing. Frank loves to play gangster rap at a high volume to feel the beat of the bass. Imagine how that looks for Ruby when he’s picking her up at school. These issues are as inconvenient as any family makes someone feel. Frank, Jacki, Leo and Ruby enjoy their lives. It’s just hard at times to enjoy their lives together. Isn’t that the case for any of us?
CODA is so aware of its subjects on singing, deafness, sign language, family, fishing and first love. Ruby has a multitude of relationships that are explored. She has to deal with her affections towards Miles. She has her mentor, Mr. V, to answer to. Ruby has to understand that Leo can depend on himself, and she has to balance what is best for her while questioning how much she can give of herself to her mom and dad. What wonderful storytelling conflicts there are to explore here! Sian Heder’s Oscar nominated script allows enough time in just under two hours to meet the demands of each angle presented.
I’m always pointing out how much I love random singing or dancing that appears in non-musical films. CODA is another perfect example. Ironically, I just read that the film is actually going to be adapted into a stage musical. It has to happen. It’ll break through so many glass ceilings on the limitations people have presumed comes with deafness. Deafness is never a limitation. In the film, however, each time Ruby sings either solo or as a duet with Miles, your pulse will race. Emilia Jones has vocals that lift your spirits and make you appreciate the gift of actually being able to listen and hear. So many of us take that for granted. Sian Heder’s film will remind you not to. Just watching Frank place his palms on his daughter’s throat while she sings to him, reminds you that the gift of sound, whether you hear it or not, is a beautiful thing. Frank doesn’t hear the song. Rather, he feels the vibration of song.
CODA is one of the best pictures of 2021. When you watch CODA, it’s simply easy to just embrace CODA.