CODA is an English-language remake of the French comedy-drama La Famille Bélier. Written and directed by Sian Heder, it follows the story of high school senior Ruby Rossi as she juggles her familial responsibilities with her own ambitions. CODA stands for child of deaf adults, and Ruby’s two parents and brother are deaf. While having a disability is a struggle in a world reluctant to accommodate, they are also a fishing business and struggle to make ends meet as a working class family. Coda is also a musical term, and Ruby’s passion for singing is unearthed as her choir instructor recognizes the potential in her. Loving both spreads her time thin across her commitments and those she cares about become increasingly frustrated with her apparent lack of discipline. So, naturally, like any coming-of-age protagonist, she must choose between dedicating her time to the family that relies on her or branching off into a frighteningly lonely unknown.
Emilia Jones is the soul of the film. She effortlessly embodies the simultaneously fearless, brave, and insecure Ruby Rossi. Teenager emotions are conflicting and confusing and difficult to manage in oneself, nevermind convincingly performing them. Ruby’s character was also carefully written. Young women can often be misrepresented and shallowly portrayed, more often than not reflecting either the extreme can-do-it-all saint or the selfish airhead. And although Ruby does struggle to do-it-all, she also fails a considerable amount. She’s selfish a reasonable amount and selfless just the right amount. It’s difficult to teeter this line realistically and still have the audience support the protagonist, but CODA succeeds.
Unfortunately, there are other aspects of the script that do not have that same air of realism. While there are not many scenes in the high school setting, they make up the weakest portions of the movie. High school is incredibly drab and films often inject unreal reactions into the narrative to maintain the emotional baseline, but sometimes they can snap you out of the film. The setting as a whole, Gloucester, Massachusetts, is perfect. CODA was filmed in Gloucester. The beauty and confined openness of a small town on the seaside not only reflects Ruby’s love for where she comes from, but also the seemingly exciting vastness of her future if not marred by the perceptions of those around her.
Those perceptions are not those of her family, though, but mainly of those who judge her family and her by proxy. If not for their deafness, then for their authenticity and crassness and economic position. It thankfully recognizes how much class plays in the misfortune of the Rossis comparatively to their disability and how collectivism eases their situation. The film takes care to explore how the Rossis hold back out of fear of being misunderstood just as much as it unpacks Ruby’s hesitance to sing, the only thing she can’t do with her family.
While one could hardly call this film subversive, it is unlike other coming-of-age films through sheer power of subject matter. Deafness isn’t typically represented in film, and it can be difficult to do it right. La Famille Bélier received criticism for not casting deaf actors in deaf roles, but CODA rectifies this mistake and as a result, depicts an authentic experience. Another criticism was that there is somewhat of a trope in the media between deaf characters and their hearing loved ones who have a talent for music that they cannot share together. It’s easy to see where trope originated, some sort of symbolic tragedy, but deaf people and their culture is so much more than that and it’s unfortunate that narratively it’s more often than not represented by music. While CODA does contribute to this music trope, it also takes care to flesh out its characters and their disability realistically and in a way that isn’t about pity. After all, inaccessibility is not a tragedy that befalls disabled individuals, it’s a moral failing of society to accommodate different kinds of people. And even if those accommodations exist, they’re not equally available to all classes.
CODA is a heartfelt film. While a little too long, it’s an enjoyable experience that inspires laughter and tears. It’s a little feel-good package with wonderfully colorful characters and an encouraging story about love, sacrifice, courage, and genuineness.