Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews CODA

Josh Reviews CODA

The beautiful, sweet film CODA was written and directed by Sian Heder (based on the French film La Famille Bélier).  The CODA of the title — a Child of Deaf Adults — is Ruby Rossi, a high school student living in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts.  Ruby is the only hearing member of her family; her brother and both her parents are deaf.  All four members of the family work together on a fishing boat, but they’re struggling to make ends meet.  Ruby, meanwhile, discovers that she has a talent for singing.  Her charismatic choir coach, Mr. V., encourages her to explore this talent.  But as she does so, Ruby finds that this begins to create a rift between her and the other three members of her tightly-knit family.

I was captivated by CODA.  It’s a deeply moving film.  I found that by the end of the film I had fallen completely in love with all four members of the Rossi family, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them after the movie ended.  I wanted to spend more time in their lives!  I wanted to know what happened to each of them next, after the end credits of the film rolled!  This is something that special movies are able to do.  It’s a combination of spectacular writing, directing, casting, and acting.

I love how specific Ms. Heder’s film is.  We get very deep into the lives of this particular family.  I loved the time the film spent exploring what it means to be trying to make a living from fishing in this modern day and age.  That entire aspect of the film fascinated me almost as much as the more publicized aspect of the exploration of Deaf culture.  I loved the montage of scenes showing the family’s early mornings out on the boat (they all wake up at 3 am, and Ruby puts in a lot of work before starting her day at school), and I loved learning about the dynamics between the different fishing boats on the pier in this town.  I’m not sure I understood everything, but I enjoyed being immersed in this world.

The cast is magnificent.  Emilia Jones is terrific as the lead, Ruby.  She effortless anchors the coming-of-age aspect of the story.  We’re right there with Ruby as she tries to navigate the different worlds she moves between, and as she tries to make the choices she needs to make as a young woman moving into her future.  Daniel Durant is terrific as Ruby’s brother, Leo.  I love how much time and attention the film gives to Leo!  The movie is unquestionably Ruby’s story, but I love how much space the film gives to Leo, showing us the journey of growth and independence that he goes on himself.  Marlee Matlin plays Ruby’s mother, Jackie.  Who else but Ms. Matlin could play this role?  I’ve of course been a fan of Ms. Matlin’s work for forever.  (I’ll always love her best as Joey Lucas from The West Wing.)  Then there is Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father, Frank.  Mr. Kotsur is the scene-stealing breakout discovery of the film.  He commands the screen with the force of his presence.  I loved this performance.  Frank is one of those special, instantly memorable cinematic characters who come along every now and then.  Mr. Kotsur moves from hilarious to heartbreaking and he’s 100% committed and captivating in every scene.

Each of those four performances is special, but even more than that, what’s particularly wonderful about Ms. Heder’s film is the way she develops this family as a unit.  We really get to see inside this family.  We see the special, tight bonds that exist between them, and how loving and supporting they are of one another, and how well these four work together as a unit.  And we also see the friction between them.  We see their different worldviews, and we see how both Ruby and Leo are pushing against the family’s status quo as they start to grow up and become more fully realized individuals themselves.  There are moments of incredible sweetness and tenderness between the four, and we also see moments of tension and of hurt.  But Ms. Heder never allows any character to turn one-dimensional or into anything approaching a caricature.  These are four fully realized people.  This is essential to how well the movie works.

I love that Ms. Heder cast this film with actors who are actually deaf, as opposed to hearing actors just pretending to be.  The film is extensively subtitled, as huge swaths of the dialogue are conveyed via ASL.  I love that Ms. Heder & co. were brave enough to allow the ASL to carry such extensive chunks of the story.  It’s a pleasure getting to watch the actors deliver this gorgeously expressive (and so often very, very funny) ASL.  I loved that about the film.  (One of the most emotional moments in the film for me is when Ruby switches into ASL when trying to express to Mr. V how singing makes her feel.)  I also appreciated the moments in which Ms. Heder allowed the audience to briefly slip into the way the film’s deaf characters experience the world, such as when all sound drops out when we see Ruby’s family watching her perform in her choir concert.

I also want to note the entertaining performance of Eugenio Derbez as Mr. V.  There’s a great history in film of inspirational teachers, and Mr. V is a fine addition to that cadre.  This is a role that could easily tip into either schmaltz or into caricature — and indeed, it is the only aspect of the movie that feels like it sometimes veers into movie cliche territory, as opposed to the heartfelt authenticity of the rest of the film — but Mr. Derbez always stays on the right side of things.  Mr. V. is funny but he’s not a joke, and in the end I found his bond with Ruby to be moving.  Also strong in the film are Amy Forsyth as Ruby’s close friend Gertie, and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (who was great in John Carney’s 2016 musical film Sing Street) as Miles, the boy in choir on whom Ruby has a crush.

I’m so happy to have caught up to CODA.  It’s a sweet, deeply felt film.  If you haven’t yet seen it, take a look.

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