2021, PG-13, 111 min. Directed by Sian Heder. Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Eugenio Derbez.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 20, 2021
In sweet, funny, and rudely charming coming-of-age comedy drama CODA, three-quarters of the Rossi family are defined by something other than congenital deafness.
Father Frank (Kotsur) is a fisherman trying to make a living on shrinking catches that are worth less and less, while he’s perpetually horny for wife, Jackie (Matlin). Son Leo (Durant) has inherited his father’s priapic tendencies, as well as a pugnacious streak, and a mean right hook balanced out only by the chip on his shoulder. Teenage daughter Ruby (Jones) is the only one who is not deaf, making her both their interface with the hearing world and an outsider in her own home.
In the same way that CODA’s characters are not boxed in by their deafness, neither is the story. Instead, it’s a perfectly communicated story of growing up and knowing that you can’t be a kid forever, as well as a specific portrait of life as a modern independent commercial fisher. In a sparkling and spiky performance, Jones finds Ruby on the cusp of making choices that she’d always tried to avoid: choices forced upon her and readily accepted when the school hires a new music teacher (Derbez) who recognizes that she has real talent, and the chance to make music her life.
In adapting the 2014 French comedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder catches what it is to live on the edge of a community. It’s not the Rossis and all their hearing neighbors (although Frank and Jackie love that they can sign jabs and jokes that no one else around will get). It’s Ruby: The title is the acronym for “child of deaf adults.” She may not be deaf, but she is part of the deaf community, instinctively signing even when speaking out loud. Meanwhile, she’s faced with an opportunity that she and they believe they can never truly appreciate.
That tension never feels tacky: Instead, it’s the perfect expression of a family where someone has a skill that’s just not part of what they do or what they are. Any kid who has tried to explain the thing that fills them with joy to parents who just don’t get it and can’t ever get it, but want to understand and are trying so hard, will empathize.
When CODA does discuss issues about the deaf community, it’s with an incredible deftness. The Rossis are wonderful, vibrant characters who happen to not be able to hear, and there are subtle ways in which that impacts their lives. CODA starts from that characterization, and then builds in those complications – the complete converse of the classic “they’re real people, too” tales in which films about people with disabilities are so frequently mired. It also reinforces that those obstacles always come with a workaround, if you’re prepared to make some changes.
CODA is also a wonderful depiction of life in a blue-collar, hard-grafting community. Much as Minari does for smallholding agriculture, it understands how farmers and fishers live: And, much as the family being immigrants is a factor (but not the only one) in Lee Isaac Chung’s small-town fable, so CODA gets that the Rossis don’t get up every morning and wonder how they will get through the day being deaf. It’s quotas and government oversight, dealing with low bids at the docks, and making payments.
There’s nothing didactic about any of this. Instead, it’s the background for a funny, tender look at growing up and growing into acceptance. Much as Youn Yuh-jung’s mischievous grandmother injected a sly comedy into Minari, so Kotsur’s impeccable comedic delivery is an uproarious delight. His over-the-top signing brings constant embarrassment to Ruby, never more so than in a deliciously awkward scene with Ruby’s classmate and shy love interest (Walsh-Peelo). His double act with Jones is one of the great pairings of the year, and absolutely grounded in a wonderfully rounded father-daughter bond.
Grounded and sweet, delicately bawdy, and decidedly hilarious, CODA puts an effervescent and original spin on the coming-of-age comedy-drama.
Available on Apple TV+ and in theatres now. A version of this review ran as part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage.