By Wendy Knowlton
21 March 2022
CODA begins with Ruby (Emilia Jones) singing aloud aboard a fishing vessel. Waves slap against the boat which creaks and clanks as gulls scream overhead. But for Ruby, this rich aural experience is not shared with her father and brother, hauling in their early morning catch. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby is a bridge between worlds. But the competing demands of each world see her falling asleep in class and bullied for being different. And when, after joining the school choir, her vocal talents are recognised, she realises loyalty must be weighed against her dreams.
In many ways, CODA treads a well-worn path. As soon as Ruby’s passionate music teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) mentions Berklee College of Music, the audience knows Ruby won’t be fishing by the time the credits roll. But that predictability doesn’t prevent CODA from being a moving and involving film. Crucial to its success is the wonderful performance of Jones, encompassing signing, singing and teenage angst. Equally impressive are the three deaf members of the cast, with Troy Lotsur a standout as Ruby’s earthy father Frank, ably supported by Marlee Matlin as her mother Jackie, and Daniel Durrant as her brother Leo. The expressive nature of their signing is one of the film’s greatest pleasures. When Ruby and Leo trade sibling insults, there is little need for subtitles, and the parents’ safe sex conversation with Ruby is a masterclass in graphic humiliation!
CODA does have its weaker moments. Why is it that when well-meaning characters try to sign, films insist they get it wrong, becoming unintentionally suggestive? And, some swift attitudinal shifts feel less than convincing. Villalobos transitions from a self-involved stickler for the rules to a softie who bends them without hesitation. Jackie dismisses her daughter’s love for the choir with “If I was blind, would you paint” and pressures Ruby to remain their “free interpreter”, but is predictably on board by the emotional conclusion.
Ultimately the film empowers all its characters. Ruby’s role has enabled her family to embrace isolation. Frank and Leo work together, and Jackie clings to the deaf community. But Leo is less than impressed by this. He sees “Saint Ruby” as a barrier. He is willing to attempt drinks after work, or flirt via text with Ruby’s friend Gertie, and sees no reason why his family can’t fight for their small business. They should pressure the hearing world to work out how to communicate with them, rather than the other way around. “We’re not helpless” he says. They want Ruby, but they don’t need her.
Villalobos accuses Ruby of holding back because she wants to sound pretty, scarred by the taunts her “ugly” attempts at communicating received when she was a child. When she lets this go in her powerful rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” it is a pertinent comment on how to view life. Her boyfriend Miles sees her exhausting, embarrassing family as “perfect”, and both she and they, learn to widen their perspectives. This is a film about inclusivity and “listening” to others and the way the hearing and non-hearing worlds come together in the end is truly beautiful.
CODA (rated PG-13) is available on Apple TV and has been nominated for three Academy Awards.