It’s difficult enough navigating tempestuous high school years, let alone trying to do it when you’re not like any of the other kids you know. CODA (an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults) offers us a glimpse into the life of a teenage girl caught between two worlds, trying to live up to the expectations of both while also carving out precious space for herself to exist as an individual. Filled with endearing, empathetic performances, CODA tells a fairly conventional coming-of-age story that is no less charming for being familiar.
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) works with her parents and older brother as an integral part of their family fishing business in working-class New England. As the only hearing member of her family (her mother Jackie, played by Marlee Matlin, father Frank, played by Troy Kotsur, and brother Leo, played by Daniel Durant, are all profoundly deaf), she occupies a tenuous position. She’s out of place in the hearing world because of her commitments to her family — she’s not just their daughter, she’s also their interpreter, their voice in business transactions, community meetings, even painfully intimate doctor’s appointments. This is to say nothing of the inevitable communication barriers that build a wall between her family and the larger community and Ruby’s unfair (but arguably understandable for a teenage girl) reluctance to bring friends from school home with her.
But at the same time, she’s not really part of the Deaf community either. Although she signs fluently, there’s a subtle but unmistakable connection that the rest of her family shares, the bonds of common experiences of having to navigate the world while Deaf, that she isn’t a part of. It’s an isolating position, and every time Ruby wants to take a step into the hearing world, she can feel her family’s needs pulling her back to them. But as she grows up, she will need to forge her own path, balancing the two parts of herself as best she can. And when her music teacher discovers her talent, ironically, for singing, and she begins to pursue voice lessons in earnest, the conflict between what she owes to her family and what she owes to herself comes to a head.
The greatest strength of CODA is in the interpersonal relationships within the family unit. Although they have their share of conflict, it’s always portrayed with love and an undercurrent of good humor throughout. Sian Heder (here on her sophomore feature-length directorial effort) seems to understand intuitively that it may be dramatic for a character to go against her family when there is a groundswell of dislike and resentment, but it’s much more compelling to have a character do so when they genuinely love their parents and are deeply loved in return.
Marlee Matlin (herself the Deaf mother of hearing children) and Troy Kotsur are both excellent as Ruby’s parents, as they slowly come to terms with the new boundaries that must be put into place as she grows up. The entire family dynamic is so warm and pleasant, yet sincere, even as they all endeavor to overcome unspoken issues that have been lingering underneath the surface for far too long. No one is wrong, per se: it makes sense that they would rely on her to serve as an intermediary when they have to interact with the hearing world. But it also makes sense that she would be reluctant to fill that role for the rest of her life, at the expense of any other goals she may wish to pursue.
Which, as we see in CODA, is her music. CODA does an excellent job of showcasing her natural abilities without ever feeling like it’s trying to be High School Musical. They choose the moments to introduce her vocal performances wisely, and Emilia Jones has a beautiful voice. What a heartbreaking feeling to know that the one thing you’re most talented at is the thing that your parents will never be able to experience. And conversely, it is with mixed emotions that her parents embrace her gift: singing isn’t exactly a stable, lucrative career, and they have no way of knowing if she’s actually any good. Parents are asked to support their children’s hobbies on faith all the time. But there’s an element of cruel irony at play here that makes it all the more emotionally wrought.
CODA was bought by Apple TV+ for a staggering $25 million, the biggest deal ever made at Sundance Film Festival, so inevitably, people are going to question it. They’re going to say that it’s sentimental and safe, that it’s just another treacly, heartwarming family drama. It’s pleasant, and everything, but is it worth $25 million? And perhaps they have a point. But CODA undeniably makes you feel something as a viewer. Its nuanced yet overwhelmingly positive family dynamics make it easy for audiences to connect with them, eliciting an emotional response that is too often for granted. CODA may return to tried-and-true methods of dramatic storytelling, but it wields those tools with heart, humor, and raw human empathy.