Want and family. Want and family. Sometimes you can’t have what you want because of your damn family. So what happens if your family erroneously believes that you all have the same wants? In Coda, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing-abled member of her family of four. Not only is Ruby the family interpreter for the outside world, but she also helps her dad Frank (Tony Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) with the family’s struggling fishing business. We’re introduced to the trio amid beautiful shots of the Massachusetts harbor as they bring in a bevy of fish, during which Ruby often sings old-school soul tunes—foreshadowing for what she’s doing and what she wants to do are not one and the same.
In high school, Ruby is very unpopular with her classmates, sans her flirtatious bestie Gertie (Amy Forsythe). Her ostracization is due to discrimination for speaking with a lisp (caused by communicating primarily with her family) when she first started at school. The lisp is gone, but the mocking of the way deaf people speak persists. Ruby’s shyness, caused by the bullying, comes back to bite her when she repeatedly disappoints her music teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez). He pushes her to sing in the class’ upcoming recital. By doing so, Ruby may become something of a prodigy, with a once and a lifetime collegiate opportunity on the table. But to pursue it would mean leaving behind her family, who rely on her communication skills to make all of their lives easier.
The film, written and directed by Sien Heder, is a coming-of-age tale about growing past a family dynamic. The Rossis are nice people, but their world is too insular. Ruby rightly wants her own life, as up to this point, she’s only existed in service of assisting her deaf family. It also doesn’t help that her parents are some of the horniest we’ve had in a recent PG-13 movie, creating quite a few embarrassing moments for her. The movie’s secret sauce is Jones, whose terrific turn is a litany of high difficulty skills. She has to adequately sign while still displaying her emotions, and she has to sing poorly; she has to sing very well, all while alternating between charming, jovial, sad, and euphoric. Somehow, this didn’t warrant a Best Actress nomination.
Nonetheless, the movie’s success is solely dependent on how Jones bounces off each character. One of the movie’s best elements is the relationship between her and Mr. V. He is, to be fair, a hard-ass. But he, like many teachers, has to be in order to get the best out of his students. It’s fulfilling to see him not only combat Ruby’s shyness but teach her to how to sing from her diaphragm instead of her chest. Their interactions feel like an authentic student/teacher relationship, including one scene where Ruby and a classmate lie about completing a group assignment in a lazy but believable way that hit too close to home!
The film’s conflict comes down to the four main characters desiring different things. Ruby wants her own identity, Leo needs dignity and respect, Frank is worried by the family’s fledgling business and the workplace practices that disadvantage deaf people, and Ruby’s mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), wants the family to have shared interests. Jackie won’t let Ruby play music at the dinner table, but a random conversation about Tinder is fair game because “Tinder is something we can all do.” It’s ludicrous, but it shows the change this family needs to take. It’s unrealistic to expect a family to be so tight-knit, never wavering on individual interests. It will not make you closer, leading instead to resentment and stunted growth.
The title has a double meaning – Coda stands for Child of Deaf Adults, but it also refers to the concluding composition in a musical show. Very punny. Ruby’s life as a Coda bumps heads with her potential music career. You get the sense that her parents never anticipated Ruby going down a path that deviated from the family business. Or perhaps they knew but didn’t want to face that reality. That is amplified by Jackie’s admission to her daughter about what she was really thinking when the latter was born. But by the end, you discover that Jackie just didn’t want to be a bad mom. Especially since Ruby, as far as we see, has never been a bad daughter.
However, that doesn’t stop her family from scapegoating her. She has responsibilities that she can’t always fulfill due to her dual life, causing a rift with her father and brother. This leads to the family relying on outside help, but the shock this individual has when she discovers the family is deaf leads to a calamity. What I don’t understand is this stranger spent half a day with them – she didn’t wonder why they weren’t saying anything? Did she think they were just sleepy?
Coda, a film distributed by AppleTV, predictably looks well lit and colorful in 4K. The cinematography displays gorgeous tones, from the sun shining on a body of water to luscious trees. Even the shades on the characters’ clothes have a richness, despite being mostly tattered and worn-down wardrobes. However, sometimes the film’s look and coverage feel like a TV show, lacking a dynamic feel. Perhaps Heder wanted the focus on the acting, shying away from showy camera movements. This intimate design is complemented by the movie’s song choices, which draw mostly from 70’s Motown. The singing on display by the characters goes on a journey, from wildly unimpressive to solid representatives of what a kid in a coastal Massachusetts city would realistically sound like when realizing their potential. In other words, you shouldn’t expect anyone here to sound like Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. That would be absurd.
This leads to a climactic opus, but Heder intentionally robs us of part of the moment. It’s an effective way to be thrust into someone else’s world, creating the empathy the story desperately needs. But Heder then circles back around and rewards us the moment in a quieter setting. When a major form of communication is robbed from you, you have to find other ways to see what’s on your daughter’s mind and in her heart. It’s a terrific moment from both Jones and Kotsur, who was outstanding all movie. The film’s ending feels reminiscent of movies like The Kids Are All Right (2010) and a dozen others in the same vein – as in, it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. But perhaps apropos, as the movie’s plot centers around a cover song. Coda itself is a cover piece, and it’s one that belongs on the playlist.
Coda is streaming now on AppleTV+.