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After premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to quick acclaim, culminating in multiple award wins, Siân Heder’s CODA broke the festival acquisition record when Apple paid over $25 million for its worldwide distribution rights. Having seen it, the reason is obvious: it’s a well-made version of that coming-of-age story you’ve seen a thousand times before, but never really get tired of. It’s a movie with real mainstream appeal, remarkably easy to connect with and to be moved by.
It also happens to feature deaf actors in substantial roles and a lot of American Sign Language, continuing what must be a strong year for deaf representation on screen – Sound of Metal took home two Oscars, Millicent Simmonds lit up A Quiet Place Part II while conquering the box office, and Kaylee Hottle outshone a cast of stars in Godzilla vs Kong. Even King Kong himself got in on the signing action. Count on Heder’s film, out now in theaters and on Apple TV+, to be the next in this string of hits.
Protagonist Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA – child of deaf adults – whose life so far has been defined by her family. A social outcast, she helps her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) with their fishing business every morning before school, expecting to join them full-time when she graduates. But when she impulsively joins choir, having always loved to sing, she catches the eye of Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who believes she has enough talent to consider attending music school. Excited by the possibility of a future she never imagined for herself, Ruby does her best to balance pursuing her passion and fulfilling her responsibility to family, realizing that she will eventually have a difficult choice to make.
In stark contrast to something like Sound of Metal, which goes to great lengths to recreate the experience of rapid hearing loss for its viewer, form takes a backseat in CODA – but Heder’s hand, while mostly invisible, can still be felt in the emotional journey her film takes us on. Her script, adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, has a deceptively difficult smoothness to its storytelling, and even though I recognized how CODA was moving me to certain feelings, I travelled to each without resistance. This speaks to the talent of the cast as well, who are left exposed by the camera and asked simply to deliver, befitting a language like ASL that requires so much engagement from the “listener.” Kotsur’s expressive performance especially excites, and is further evidence that Hollywood could truly benefit from spotlighting more deaf actors.
Where CODA truly steps out from a crowded tradition, though, is in its full approach to characterization. Ruby is the clear protagonist and her family the secondary characters, but while other, lesser versions of this story might have made them one-dimensional plot-drivers, here the distinction only reflects their time on screen. Frank, Leo and Ruby’s mother, Jackie (Academy Award-winner Marlee Maitlin), all have their own quirks, values, and desires that can be seen in the way they interact, and while they possess traits that put them at odds with Ruby, it’s clear that frictious relationship goes both ways. The feeling that these characters are living lives that we just don’t see, and that this film could have been made from any of their perspectives, is a sign of its intelligent design and execution. CODA might not blow you away, but you will almost certainly enjoy it.