Sian Heder’s CODA is exactly what you’d expect from any other traditional coming-of-age comedy-drama, recycling story beats from cherished films such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Edge of Seventeen and even Dirty Dancing. Yet, although formulaic, the film manages to bring its own intrinsic perspective on the dog-eared genre by concentrating on a young girl coping with a unique set of circumstances. In doing so, Heder manages to create a touching ode to coming-of-age flicks whilst blazing her own distinct trail.
‘You’re the girl with the deaf family?’ asks Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) when introduced to his newest student, Ruby Rossi (the electric Emilia Jones), managing to sum up Ruby’s entire identity with a single question. Ruby is the traditional coming-of-age drama fodder, being the isolated weird kid with only one real friend to her name. Yet, as the only hearing member of her family, Ruby’s life is a little bit more hectic than your average teenager’s. She wakes every day at 3 PM to work alongside her Dad and brother on the family’s fishing boat—as the only one who can hear the radio messages from the coast guard and haggle with the fish traders for a fair price, her presence on the dock is essential to the family’s small income. After a heavy morning of physical labour, Ruby faces a long day at school where the other kids give her hell for stinking like fish and dressing like a trucker. Things aren’t all that easy after school either, with Ruby hardly getting the chance to grab a moment for herself: ‘Do you have a second to call Grandma?’ Ruby’s Mum asks the moment she arrives home. It becomes clear that Ruby is much more than a daughter and a sister; she is a translator and, as such, a bridge from the isolated world of silence into the populated one of sound. With so much on her plate, Ruby hasn’t had a minute to forge an identity for herself or think about what her life could become outside of her family home. Yet, this all changes one day when, impulsively acting on her crush, Ruby signs up to the school’s choir and starts to develop her love for singing and the real power of her voice.
CODA is an inviting and familiar story with an all-American and slightly cheesy heart. Ruby’s family gift the film a well-defined edge, as not only is it unusual for audiences to see deaf characters in a film like this, the Rossis are also rather dysfunctional. Being deaf in a small, unaccommodating town has secluded the family, but they care very little about the town’s perception of them, meaning they embarrass Ruby with the unabashed ways they go about their days: loudly playing gangsta rap when they pick her up from school because they enjoy the vibrations or forcing her to translate to a doctor their worries about possible STDs. Even at home, the Rossi’s have a skewed sense of boundaries: unbothered by noise, they are constantly farting, making a racket or having sex too loudly, and their extreme closeness means they share everything—even Tinder is a family activity. Excellent comical performances from Mum (Marlee Matlin) and Dad (Troy Kotsur) give the film a vivid sense of realism, creating a united and fun portrait of family life that is also tinged with fear, insecurity, and uncertainty for the future.
Perhaps we are left wanting for originality in some areas of the script, with Heder circling unnecessarily around familiar story beats. For instance, Ruby has a huge fight with her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) when he rather innocently tells a friend a funny story about Ruby’s family that circulates around the school, resulting in more teasing for her to deal with. Alongside this, the way Heder pushes and pulls Ruby between her family and her longing to pursue a music scholarship at the University of Boston often feels circumstantially orchestrated and too on the nose. However, CODA leans into its influences, always managing to defy expectations. Heder maintains a careful balance between Ruby’s relationship with her family and her longing for identity, managing to keep Ruby away from the ungrateful teenager trope. An eclectic soundtrack also offers something different, with Heder selecting music from Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye and The Shaggs rather than anything too contemporary. Even Ruby’s love interest – being a musical choir nerd rather than the hot jock type – feels like a refreshing stance to take. Having created such a unique perspective, Heder also gets to play around with characterization: Ruby can scream in frustration and play music as loud as she wants without circumstance. We also see Ruby in the role of the parent, with her – being the only one who can hear the alarm – waking up mum and dad for work and accompanying them to meetings and doctors appointments.
The films powerful inclusivity for the deaf community is perhaps its greatest strength. Long sequences of sign language take centre stage, often working to highlight just how difficult it is for Ruby’s family to communicate with those around them. The frustration and setbacks Ruby’s family face really make you wonder why schools prefer to teach dead languages such as Latin rather than something more practical and inclusive such as BSL or ASL. An emotional scene in which Ruby and her Mum discuss her birth reveals just how much society excludes differently-abled people, with Ruby’s Mum confessing that she feared that she wouldn’t be a good enough parent once she discovered Ruby could hear.
Overall, the film reflects organic and human lives, busting myths and misplaced perceptions about the deaf community. Plus, on top of this, it brims with hilarity, heart and warmth, making it the perfect cosy treat for any audience.
Coda will steam via Apple TV+ from August 13th