A gently told coming-of-age family drama, writer-director Sian Heder’s Coda is an accomplished, at times schmaltzy adaptation of the French dramedy La Famille Bélier from 2014. Though Coda’s representation of deaf characters is insightful and moving, the film’s reliance on cheap sentimentality threatens its most perceptive and entertaining qualities.
Teenager Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) sings as she tends on her family’s fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As Ruby croons, her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and father Frank (Troy Kotsur) work in noticeable silence. The Rossi clan is deaf, and Ruby as the sole hearing person serves as the family’s interpreter, protecting them from local predatory business practices and teenagers who painfully mock them when Ruby attends school.
The family matriarch is the hearing-people hating Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and her deafness solidifies Rudy as a “coda” (Child Of Deaf Parents), a weighty label that burdens the high school senior. After impressing the quick-witted choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), Ruby must pick either attending college or staying home to help her desperate family navigate the murky waters of Cape Ann and everyday life.
Though Coda relies heavily on tropes, the film’s take on such elements is fresh. There is the inclusion of a motivational, out-of-town-mentor — the dramatic Bernardo — who works with the shy Ruby to develop the pupil’s singing skills. Though their bond falls in line with familiar mentor-mentee relationships, it doesn’t feel as worn chiefly due to Ruby balancing her familial duties with her dreams and Derbez’s free-spirited, feisty performance. Though Ruby’s love interest, the fellow singer Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is as serviceable as he is cliche, the teenagers’ relationship is most watchable when the family is involved. When the teens practice a duet in Ruby’s home, a thumping noise gives away Ruby’s parents having sex in an adjacent room. The discovery leads to a brief sit-down meeting with the family, where Frank’s advice to diffuse the tension, “Put a helmet on that soldier,” makes amusing use of ASL as well as the situation.
The Rossi family’s humane representation results from the naturalism of the deaf actors, who inhabit their roles with ease and awareness of details most films about deaf characters ignore. When Jackie orders Ruby to put away her headphones before dinner, Leo openly browses Tinder, asking his mother for suggestions. After Ruby complains, Jackie signs, “Tinder is something we can all do as a family,” suggesting the close but unique bonds the family nurtures. Frank is viewed not as a victim or loner but as a caring father who has no shortage of dad jokes — he loves to blast rap music because of the bass vibration.
CODA’s representation strategy culminates in a powerful moment at Ruby’s duet, when the mise-en-scène inhabits Frank’s point of view, cutting all noise as viewers drape the gaze of the curious father: a crowd of teary-eyed spectators responds to Ruby’s singing while her family looks in fascination and even boredom — Jackie signs about next week’s activities. This experimental scene is a marvel of cinematic empathy, for it allows viewers to understand the painful reality of deaf parents who cannot listen to their children the same way others can. Here, Coda emphasizes the extent to which deafness can be lonely. The family’s resistance to Ruby attending college is not to keep a free interpreter, but to hold on to an invaluable anchor.
Coda never lives up to this moment, opting for mawkish sequences that rely too much on coincidence and sentimentality. When Ruby finally auditions, cheesy elements substitute for the emotional depth of the duet scene, weakening a film whose representation of the underrepresented is so intense at times that its dependence on Hallmark-like characteristics is more than mildly disappointing.
Nonetheless, Coda should be seen, and though its most potent moments are few, the film’s nuanced glimpse into deafness and sensitivity to its characters make it unshakably affecting.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.