“CODA” review: Conventional yet unique coming of age story


Courtesy of Apple

Writer-director Sian Heder’s new film “CODA” goes through the usual motions of being a feel-good film. Still, it’s done in a refreshing and ultimately heartwarming way through its unique perspective.

The film’s title stands for “child of deaf parents,” and in this case her name is Ruby, played by the wonderful Emilia Jones. She is the only hearing person in her family, which includes her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant), all played by real-life deaf actors. The shy, 17-year-old Ruby serves as the family’s lone interpreter, helping her father and brother with the fishing business in the morning before going to high school. But when she joins the school choir and discovers a newfound passion for singing, she finds herself at a crossroads: continue helping her family or pursue her dreams.

At first glance, “CODA” steadily marches to the beat of its conventional plot. Ruby finds herself mentored by an eccentric yet well-meaning teacher, played by Eugenio Derbez. She also finds a love interest in fellow singer Miles, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo. The inevitable push-and-pull of Ruby’s desires, culminating in an audition for the prestigious Berklee School of Music, may not sound out of place in a Disney movie. In fact, it may be tempting to say that it never fully distinguishes itself.

However, the film finds its best qualities in its realistic depiction of a deaf family. It portrays the struggles that Ruby’s family has to face, from everyday discrimination to potentially endangering their livelihood. One gets the sense that Ruby is essentially indispensable for them to deal with their surroundings, which makes her main struggle with reconciling her personal desires with her family’s wishes empathetic to watch.

The film’s sincere portrayal of Ruby’s deaf family lies in the fact that they are presented as fleshed out characters facing universal trials and tribulations. It is also attributed to the actors’ seamless command of sign language, which is something we don’t see everyday. Perhaps not since the similarly themed “Sound of Metal” has the deaf community been represented in an enlightened manner as “CODA.” If anything else, it should be a catalyst for more films depicting them for a change.

Ultimately, nobody minds the fact that “CODA” is a formulaic feel-good film. What makes it work is its unwavering empathy for Ruby and her family. Ruby’s passion for singing may be alienating to her family considering their situation, but her genuine love for them transcends all. If a film can encompass the conventions it had to work with, then it’s worth watching.

Click here to stream “CODA” on Apple TV Plus.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry