What to Watch Verdict
In a time when finding ways to connect and understand one another is even more vitally important, the message at the heart of Heder's feature film is sure to hit an pleasing chord.
🎶Stellar ensemble cast.
🎶Missed opportunities for character development.
🎶A few clichéd and underdeveloped plot points.
Fifteen minutes in, and it’s clear why CODA — writer/director Siân Heder’s stylish remake of the French film La Famille Bélier — kicked off the Sundance Film Festival and has been nominated for three Oscars.
The film explores weighty themes like fear of failure, co-dependence, and ambition with laughter and honesty. It's an engaging balancing act as a close-knit family learns to let go and make room for each other's dreams.
CODA follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, Aled Jones' daughter), a high school senior living with her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur, Oscars Nominee) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin, The West Wing and Children of a Lesser God) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) in a fishing community in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The film’s title, CODA, stands for 'child of deaf adults' and refers to a child who lives with deaf adults and typically learns Sign Language as their first language. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby has grown up as the family’s go-between —dutifully acting as the interpreter between the hearing world and her deaf family. She's been brought up to act for the family first.
Jones portrays Ruby with a lightness of spirit that keeps the character from coming across as too-bitter-to-believe. There's a steadiness to Ruby that shows that her willingness to sacrifice herself for her family comes from a place of love, rather than masochism. We're more likely to encounter Ruby singing than brooding.
As we learn what a day-in-the-life is like for the Rossi's, it’s clear that director Heder intends for viewers to reverse roles — considering what impact living in a world not designed for their needs, might have on people's sense of belonging.
It's Ruby's last year in school. She's determined to sing because singing is what she loves above all else. CODA sets up the dilemma in stages creating first a clear picture of a day in the life of this family of fishermen. Ruby's days begin before dawn and trying to make it through the school day without being mocked or heckled is emotionally hectic.
From the outset, what sets CODA apart from other family dramas is, this was never intended to be Ruby Rossi’s solo journey. Heder takes time building out the world around the Rossi family, crafting a coming-of-age tale focused on a family forced to grow up and find their way forward — as individuals and as a unit. No Rossi is ever reduced to being just a springboard for Ruby’s growth. It's in these ensemble moments that the film hits its stride.
Throughout the film, it's clear that the Rossi home pays little heed to the needs of the hearing. It opens the door for some pointed (and ironic) commentary on how dismissive people are of things that have little impact on them. It also lays the groundwork for a uniquely presented (if underdeveloped) subplot unraveling Jackie's fear of being a bad mother and the reasons behind it.
It's abundantly clear that Frank and Jackie only evaluate their child's needs as it relates to themselves. It's in this part of the story where CODA really hits its stride. Mother/daughter conflict, sibling rivalry and having each other's back when it counts— points of connection and teachable moments that add authenticity to the story.
With three talented deaf actors giving strong, nuanced performances, CODA centers a deaf household without caricature or treating deafness as an insurmountable obstacle. Juxtaposing Ruby’s desire to follow her dream with her family’s wish to stick together, elevates this family's journey to a poignant commentary on the dangers of building your comfort zones around other people — even (and perhaps especially) when they are your loving family.
CODA questions what loyalty looks like and answers with a refreshingly contemporary celebration of family, rife with reminders that sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is bet on yourself.
CODA has three Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay
Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.
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