According to the dictionary, “coda” is a noun meaning:
- a concluding section or part, as in a work of music, literature, or drama.
- an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults.
Both definitions apply to the entertaining new movie, “CODA,” in which Emilia Jones stars as Ruby Rossi, whose parents and brother are all deaf. Since she was a child, Ruby has had to serve as the voice and ears for her family, their only connection to the hearing world. She’s also had to help her father and brother on their fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, starting her days at 3am, followed by full days of high school.
On top of that, Ruby has chosen choir as an elective at school, the better to be close to Miles, a boy she’s had a secret crush on. Their teacher, Mr. Villalobos, sees potential in both of them and pairs them for a duet in an upcoming choir concert. Now, with a new hobby and a blossoming romance, Ruby has even more on her plate.
What makes “CODA” work is the phenomenal performance by Jones, who injects Ruby with the right portions of teenage pathos, anxiety, and warmth — plus a pretty damned good singing voice. As the only non-deaf member of the primary cast, Jones spent nine months learning American Sign Language. As if that weren’t daunting enough, she then had to pull it off with her co-stars, including the force of nature that is Marlee Matlin, arguably the most famous deaf actor ever, who does some of her best work as Ruby’s mom. The dad and brother are played by Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, both from a deaf theater group in Los Angeles. Kotsur in particular brings a special energy to his role as the family — outsiders even within the community of fellow fishermen — struggles to stay economically viable.
The script, written by director Sian Heder, has some predictable elements, but whenever that’s the case, it’s the execution that will make or break the production. Heder and her cast pull it off very well, with some humor along the way and a couple of emotional moments in the last half-hour that really got to me. One of those occurs at a choir concert in which Ruby performs while her parents watch in the auditorium, unable to understand their daughter’s talent but trying to take cues from the others in attendance.
You’d be mistaken to write “CODA” off as just another coming-of-age story or a sappy movie about deaf people. It is an engrossing tale of a young woman whose family needs her help at the same time she’s itching to begin a life of her own. Like another movie about deafness from earlier this year, “Sound Of Metal” (my review is here), it offers a glimpse into a world I was unfamiliar with, yet happy to have experienced through their lenses.
I give “CODA” a 9 out of 10. Now in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.