Review: ‘CODA,’ starring Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Amy Forsyth

January 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Emilia Jones in “CODA” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“CODA”

Directed by Siân Heder

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Massachusetts cities of Gloucester and Boston, the comedy/drama “CODA” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, who has the ability to hear, while her immediate family members (mother, father and brother) are deaf, has to decide if she will stay in the family fishing business or go to Berklee College of Music to pursue a singing career.

Culture Audience: “CODA” will appeal primarily to people who like heartwarming movies about families and pursuing dreams while realistically addressing the challenges and prejudices faced by people in the disabled community.

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in “CODA” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“CODA” is an acronym for “child of deaf adult(s)”, but the word could have a double meaning if it applies to the musical term “coda,” which means a passage that brings a composition to an end. It’s a fitting analogy, because music and the rite of passage of deciding what to do with one’s life after high school are major themes in this well-acted and memorable film about a teenager and her deaf family. Capably written and directed by Siân Heder, “CODA” is an American remake of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier,” which translates to “The Bélier Family” in English. “CODA” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and should prove to be a notable milestone in American cinema in representation of deaf people, as well as a breakout role for star Emilia Jones.

In “CODA,” Jones plays the central character, Ruby Rossi, a teenager in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who’s in her last year of high school and has spent almost her entire life being a translator for her deaf family members: father Frank (played by Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (played by Marlee Matlin) and older bother Leo (played by Daniel Durant), who appears to be in his early 20s. Deafness is a genetic trait in the family, except for Ruby, who was born with hearing abilities.

Fishing is the Rossi family business, and Ruby usually accompanies Frank and Leo on the family boat Angela + Rose for their fishing expeditions. Frank is a laid-back hippie type, while Leo is a generally good guy but he can be quick-tempered. Jackie is the type of woman who doesn’t want to be a frumpy matron. She still wants to be vibrant and sexy, and she likes to remind her family that she once won the Yankee Miss Pageant. Because they all depend on Ruby for interactions with hearing people, they all have a co-dependent relationship with each that will reach a crossroads during this story.

The movie opens with Ruby, Frank and Leo on one of their fishing excursions. And it’s here that viewers see from the beginning that Ruby loves singing and music. She’s belting out Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold Me” as it plays on a tiny transistor radio. Ruby isn’t shy about singing in front of her family, but she’s definitely self-conscious about people who can hear her sing and possibly judge her singing abilities.

Because Ruby is a translator for her family to communicate with the hearing world, she knows the prejudice that her deaf loved ones can get from bigoted people who think deaf people are automatically less intelligent than hearing people. Therefore, Ruby is very protective and assertive in negotiating prices when the family has to sell fish. Their biggest customer is a local business called Salgado’s Seafood Company, whose owner Tony Salgado (played by John Fiore) and his employees often try to lowball the Rossi family when negotiating purchase prices for the Rossi’s fish. Ruby isn’t afraid to speak up and demand high prices so people won’t take advantage of the family.

At Gloucester High School, Ruby isn’t as self-confident. She’s quiet and keeps mostly to herself. And Ruby is perceived as a misfit, who gets taunted by some of the school’s “mean girls” for not conforming to what their idea of “cool” is. For example, when Ruby is in the school hallway near her locker, a group of these snobs walk by her and one of them snipes in a disgusted tone of voice, “Do you smell fish?” Later, when Ruby’s parents pick her up from school, she’s mortified that her father is loudly playing rap music, because the other kids react by smirking and laughing at Ruby and her parents.

Ruby’s only real friend at school is a brash flirt named Gertie (played by Amy Forsyth), who cares more about dating guys (usually much older men) than she cares about being part of a stuck-up girls’ clique. While waiting in line to sign up for after-school activities, Gertie is surprised that Ruby has chosen the school choir. “You’re already socially challenged enough around here,” Gertie says sarcastically. Ruby is undeterred and tells Gertie nonchalantly, “I sing all the time.”

During auditions for the school choir, the choir leader Bernardo Villalobos (played by Eugenio Derbez), who likes his students to call him Mr. V, lets it be know that he’s a fussy yet sassy taskmaster who won’t tolerate anything less than excellence. He plays the piano to accompany the singers during choir rehearsals.

To determine their singing range, he quips, “Let’s see if you’re a soprano, an alto or watched too many episodes of ‘Glee.'” The students audition by each singing “Happy Birthday.” But when it’s Ruby’s turn, she panics and runs out of the room.

On another day, a sheepish Ruby returns to the classroom when Mr. V is alone. She wants another chance to audition, but he’s skeptical that she has what it takes to sing in front of an audience. She opens up to him about how she was scared during the first audition because she’s self-conscious about her voice. She tells him that when she was younger, she was teased a lot for her speaking voice, because she sounded like a deaf person.

Mr. V seems to show a glimmer of empathy when he realizes that Ruby is the student with the deaf family who’s apparently talked about a lot in school. He sees that Ruby has a passion for singing, but she doesn’t quite know how to express it yet. Mr. V tells Ruby, “There are plenty of pretty voices with nothing to say. Do you have something to say?”

When Ruby says “yes,” Mr. V then tells her “I’ll see you in class.” The odd thing about this scene is that Ruby never actually sings anything before Mr. V tells her she can be in the class. She could’ve been a horrible singer, and he just gave her easy acceptance into the choir that he takes very seriously. But there would be no “CODA” movie if Ruby had no singing talent.

And there’s another reason why Ruby wants to be in this singing group: She has a crush on a fellow classmate named Miles Patterson (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who’s also in the choir. Miles has the type of pleasant pretty-boy persona that gives the impression that he’s a sensitive and romantic type. Ruby is too shy to do anything about her crush on Miles, so she has to settle for furtive glances at Miles when she sees him at school.

The next time that Ruby sings in front of the choir, the students are rehearsing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Mr. V also has them do breathing exercises where the students have to inhale and exhale as if they’re various-sized dogs. These unorthodox exercises seem to boost Ruby’s confidence, so when it comes time for her to do a solo, she belts out “Let’s Get It On” as if she’s a soulful R&B singer.

Mr. V and the other students are impressed with Ruby’s singing talent. And because Miles sees this other side to Ruby, a spark of admiration for her starts to become evident. And you know what that means for a movie like this one.

And what do you know, Mr. V just happens to select Ruby and Miles to perform what’s supposed to be a show-stopping duet at the choir’s big recital, which will be shown later in the story. He tells them that they have to sing Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” so that means that Ruby and Miles have to spend time together rehearsing their duet. How convenient.

During one of those rehearsals at Ruby’s home, she’s mortified when she and Miles hear the sounds of Ruby’s parents having sex in a nearby room. It’s one of the funnier scenes in the movie. Her parents stop what they’re doing and try to be cool about it by forcing a “let’s be mature about this and talk about what happened” moment with Ruby and Miles in their living room. It just makes Ruby even more embarrassed.

Frank and Jackie have a happy marriage, but it’s come under strain due to financial problems in the family business. In one scene, Ruby eavesdrops on an argument that Frank and Jackie have because one of Jackie’s credit cards was declined. Jackie suggests that Frank sell their boat to pay off their debts, but he’s vehemently against the idea because fishing has been in his family for generations, and he says he doesn’t know how to do anything else with his life.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot about Gertie being attracted to Leo. When Gertie tells Ruby about it, Ruby tells Gertie that Leo is off-limits because Ruby hates the idea of her best friend dating her brother. When Gertie asks Ruby how to tell someone in sign language that she wants to hook up for sex, Ruby instead shows her how to to sign the words, “I have herpes.” Gertie doesn’t know that though, so Leo gets quite a surprise when Gertie tells him that in sign language.

“CODA” has several comedic moments, but there’s also some emotional drama too. The Rossi family business goes through a big change where Ruby is needed more than ever to help out with the business. And then, Mr. V offers to privately tutor Ruby. He also wants to recommend her for the prestigious Berklee College of Music, his alma mater. It should come as no surprise that these demands on her time eventually cause conflicts.

The more Ruby starts to feel her confidence and identity blossoming because of her singing talent, the more she’s pulled back into family obligations. Jackie gives Ruby more of a guilt trip about it than Frank does, while Leo thinks that Ruby should pursue her singing dreams. And, of course, Ruby must eventually make a choice.

“CODA” benefits from impressive performances from the main cast members, with Jones excelling in her very authentic portrayal of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Kotsur, Matlin and Durant give fine portrayals of family members who often feel like “outsiders” in the hearing world. But in their own family, this trio’s deafness gives them a bond that unintentionally makes Ruby feel like an outsider.

Derbez and his often-flamboyant Mr. V character isn’t a one-note clown, since the character shows some emotional depth when he mentions how being a Mexican immigrant shaped his outlook on life. He also has a snappy comeback during an argument with Ruby when she suggests that he’s a failure because he’s a teacher instead of a professional musician. Forsyth is also quite good in her portrayal of Gertie, but Gertie’s confident character isn’t given much screen time, other than to just show up as a counterpoint to Ruby’s more hesitant personality.

“CODA” tends to rely a bit too much on “TV-movie-of-the-week” type of montages to further the story. And there are a few too-cutesy moments when Mr. V. gives Ruby some kind of pep talk, and Ruby just suddenly transforms from wishy-washy and insecure to someone who sings like a seasoned pro. This effect that Mr. V has on Ruby is played almost like he’s a hypnotist who can snap his fingers and make Ruby believe what he tells her, and then she can sing right on cue in the way he wants her to sing. It’s a little too much of a “movie moment” and should have been filmed in a more natural way.

The “CODA” song soundtrack will delight fans of pop, rock and R&B music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Some of the other songs that are prominently in the movie that are sung by cast members include Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” the Kiki Dee Band’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me” and David Bowie’s “Starman.” There’s also a rousing sequence set to the Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law.”

This is not a movie that wants to be trendy, but instead it leans heavily toward trying to look and sound classic. In other words, “CODA” won’t look embarrassingly dated a few years after the movie is released. With breezy charm and some unabashed sentimentality, “CODA” also gives a valuable perspective of a family affected by deafness. However, this movies speaks to universal truths that self-doubt, not a physical disability, is often the biggest obstacle that people have to overcome in pursuing a dream.

UPDATE: Apple TV+ will release “CODA” in U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on August 13, 2021.