There are two films within CODA, an often-charming film about a hearing girl born into a family of deaf people. One movie is about their struggles, both hers as someone who is separated from her family by her ability to hear and their difficulties navigating a society that actively resists their efforts to get by. The other film is a treacly inspirational drama about a high schooler beating the odds to pursue a singing career, despite not coming from the sort of place where people tend to do that. One half is tethered to reality and is responsible for CODA’s emotional core, while the other feels pasted on and half-baked, a necessary gesture towards commercial necessity.
CODA (short for “child of deaf adults”) stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, who spends most of her time outside of high school on her family’s fishing boat off the shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Her father, Frank (a hilarious Troy Kotsur), and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) work with her, while her mother (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin) stays back onshore and handles the books. All three are deaf, while Ruby can hear just fine. As such, she’s an essential part of family operations. She has to be on the boat with the men to respond to any radio calls or to help them negotiate fish prices with greedy middlemen, and later she’ll have to serve as a translator when her family tries to start its own co-op.
The film bestows a documentary immediacy on Ruby’s relationship with her family, and the most compelling scenes are when she’s with her parents, either sparring or giving in to Kotsur and Matlin’s impressive comic skills. They don’t seem like they’re mugging for the camera but rather capturing the spirit of those hilarious cousins everyone seems to have. When things get serious, as when Ruby berates her parents for the way they’ve become reliant on her and never planned for her possible departure, it feels as if we’re getting a glimpse into a real family’s arguments. Ruby’s also a talented singer, and she’s often launching into song when she’s alone, or at least when she’s with her family members, who can’t hear her and therefore won’t embarrass her. Long sections are played out in silence as Ruby converses with her family in American Sign Language, her first language. (English is what she uses to get by when she’s not at home.) The writer and director, Siân Heder, let these scenes play out leisurely to give a nicely developed portrait of how the quartet relying on each other.
There could have been a great drama about a hearing girl and her family and their struggles keeping their fishing business afloat, but Heder also welds another story about Ruby’s singing aspirations that threatens to sink CODA. She joins her high school’s elective choir on a lark, where her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), spots her vocal talents and pushes her to audition for a prestigious music school. But focusing on her singing means spending less time on the fishing boat, which leaves her brother and father without their anchor and in serious legal jeopardy after accidentally running afoul of the Coast Guard. It won’t surprise anyone watching the film that everything is wrapped up at the end in a tear-jerking inspirational finale, but it feels like a betrayal of the film CODA initially seems to be. Part of that is likely a problem of the source, as it’s a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, which follows the same basic storyline, except the family are farmers instead of fishermen. The soapy scenes about Ruby’s musical aspirations feel more like an episode of This Is Us, and Derbez is so over-the-top that he seems to be acting in a different movie. That’s sort of his M.O., but it’s disappointing that Heder couldn’t rein him in.
There are still enough great low-key scenes of Ruby and her family to make CODA worthwhile, but the need to turn it into a crowd-pleaser robs it of much of its power. Still, it’s a great showcase for Jones, who is electrifying in the lead role, and Kotsur and Matlin shine every second they’re on screen. It’s just a shame they’re in a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on January 29, 2021, as part of our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival.