Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the titular CODA: a child of deaf adults. She is the only person who can hear in her family and when she is not at school, she is working on a fishing boat alongside her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Ruby loves to sing and would love to be a singer, but has no desire to leave her family behind.
With Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin playing Ruby’s mother and Spanish-language superstar Eugenio Derbez playing Ruby’s comically flamboyant choir teacher, it is not too hard to guess what path CODA travels from start to finish. Predictability aside, it has plenty of schmaltzy Hallmark movie moments, implausibly convenient turns and that aura of feeling like the same kind of Indie that has become synonymous with the Sundance Film Festival. Except not every Sundance title of its ilk wins the top prizes at the Festival and no film has ever won all of the top Dramatic awards – that is, until this year when CODA made history by winning all three along with a special grand jury prize for Best Ensemble.
The last paragraph may have sounded rather cynical, but you would need to be horribly nihilistic to be bothered by any of those things. CODA is the very definition of a crowd-pleasing film, wearing its heart and emotions on its sleeves. It has a way of disarming even the most skeptical viewers with its charm and humour. Instead of telling the same story we have all heard and watched a dozen times, it flips the narrative and focuses on a group of individuals who you have quite likely had minimal exposure to in your lifetime. Writer/Director Sian Heder is not too inventive here, wisely focusing on Ruby, the lived-in family dynamics and not much else (to the chagrin of a few barely developed supporting characters). She allows large portions of the Film to be spoken only in sign language (with subtitles), and plays with the Sound Design in interesting ways. I felt like the Film dragged out a bit too long, yet wish I was able to spend even more time with this family.
The Cast, led by Jones, is absolutely wonderful. Kotsur, Durant and Matlin are spectacular in their roles, bringing a raw physicality and genuine passion to every scene. They each get a handful of quirky moments and lines that will leave you laughing out loud, and bring a special kind of warmth and intimacy to their characters. They work together so well and brilliantly compliment the star turn from Jones. She is terrific as Ruby and soars no matter what is thrown in front of her. It does not matter that you know what is going to happen – you hang onto every second of her plight, cheering her on and hoping she achieves everything she wants. She is the beating heart of the Film and commands the screen with her presence alone, even when she is cowering behind other people.
CODA is a lovely and truly wonderful film. I laughed, I cried and I smiled from ear to ear by the time it was done. Heder hones-in on family dynamics brilliantly and steers the Film away from any overly-sentimental hurdles. She knows just what emotions to tug on and has a terrific ensemble who elevate her words in intimate and moving ways. It is easily one of the year’s best films and an instant must-see.
CODA streams on Apple TV+ starting Friday, August 13, 2021.