One of the press releases for this film explained that CODA means “child of deaf adults.” I never knew that, and simply thought of the meaning I knew for “coda” -- the conclusion of a piece of music or show. That gives it the perfect double meaning for this story about a girl who wants to pursue music and has deaf parents who can’t hear her sing. And, at least one parent who resents her for pursuing something she can’t enjoy (at one point stating, “If I were blind, would you have become a painter?”). The scene that line was used in is one of many that was perfectly conceived, and credit goes to director Sian Helder for giving us so many terrific moments like that. In fact, my wife and I enjoyed this movie so much, I can forgive it for being cliche and formulaic, manipulating, as well as predictable; because when you enjoy spending so much time with such an interesting family, it makes it all worth it.
Ruby Rossie (British newcomer Emilia Jones) is a teenager who, like most, has to deal with a few bullies. It might be a bit worse for her, since she has a deaf family and when she started school, she sounded a bit like them. She also came to school in flannel shirts and smelling like fish because she’d wake up early to work on her dad’s fishing boat. The opening scene gives us Etta James’ “It Must Be Your Love” while she belts along to the tune, throws fish in a bucket, and swabs the deck. It’s the first of many terrific song choices.
Her mom Jackie (Oscar winner Marlee Maitlin) and dad Frankie (stage actor Troy Kotsur) have a great relationship. The filmmakers overdid it a bit with their not being able to keep their hands off each other, but by the same token, it’s nice that a film can show people with disabilities also enjoying a healthy sex life.
Leo (Daniel Durant) plays the brother, and the way his relationship develops with Rudy is perfectly done. For example, in the film Fighting With My Family, the brother's resentment toward his sister was a bit much. Yet in this movie, we can really feel why he’d resent his sister -- the one who seemingly comes to the rescue when problems arise.
She’s also had to deal with people laughing at her family, and protecting them. That makes it all the more powerful when the parents fight over her wanting to go to college. What her dad says to her mom before rolling over in bed is short but sweet. And all the better for not being overwritten with some long dialogue. Yet both parents agree that -- college shouldn’t be in her future. It’s expensive (and they’re fraught with money problems), and she is a big part of their family fishing business. Especially with a new endeavor they’re undertaking.
After we see Ruby sing along to Etta and some quirky bands she’s fond of, she decides to join the choir when a cute boy she’s been eyeing signs up for it.
Music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugene Derbez) was one of the few characters I wish would have been written a bit differently. By casting a comedic actor, I kept waiting for the comic relief, and it distracted me from his true character -- a tough music teacher, who knows what it takes to get into Berklee School of Music, and succeed there. His character also seemed a bit too flamboyant.
It was fun hearing the choir sing Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On (and it reminded me of how well Jack Black sang it in High Fidelity). One kid was even sporting a King Crimson shirt. They also sang the great Isley Brothers tune It’s Your Thing. And while I’m a bit tired of EVERY MOVIE wanting to use a Bowie track now, how can you not enjoy hearing great teenage voices sing Starman?
The two best uses of songs were the Joni Mitchel classic Both Sides, Now. There’s a scene near the end where Ruby sings it, and it crushes you. It’s impossible not to cry your eyes out. In fact, I’m tearing up just remembering what transpired as she sang it.
The other moment was more personal for me. My good friend Chris has been battling stage 4 cancer. When we met, it was our shared love of cigars and The Clash that bonded us. I even bought a brand new Clash shirt to wear on my next trip to the hospital to see him. Well, when Ruby rebels in this, they blasted out The Clash’s great cover of I Fought the Law. And when I should’ve been rocking out in my seat, I was crying, thinking about Chris.
There’s a scene when the choir puts on a show, and a technique that’s used (which reminded me of something they did in Sound of Metal last year), was interesting. My wife couldn’t stop talking about it on the way home, and a friend of mine who saw the movie, also mentioned it being one of his favorite scenes. I can tell you what they did, without spoiling it. Halfway through Ruby’s song, they showed it to us through the parents’ eyes (literally) in the audience. We no longer heard her terrific voice singing a duet with the guy she has a crush on, but we hear -- nothing. I won’t spoil for you what makes that scene truly epic.
This movie would go nicely in a double feature with Mr. Holland’s Opus.
You can watch it on Apple TV+, or enjoy it the way we did -- at the Angelika Film Center (it’s playing a few other places in town, too).
3 ½ stars out of 5.