CODA (2021)

Ruby (Emilia Jones), a high school girl in Gloucester, Massachusetts, gets up every morning before dawn to help her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) with the daily catch.  She loves to sing and does so very well, but she also happens to be the sole member of her family who can hear, a Child of Deaf Parents (or CODA).  A spur-of-the-moment decision to join the school choir helps her realize her true potential, and the help of her teacher Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) could land her a college scholarship to study music.  

However, if Ruby’s dreams come true, that would mean leaving her family without a translator for the hearing world.  Will Ruby abandon her dreams of going to college to stay home and continue to help the family business?  Or will her family let her go and find a different way to earn a living?  CODA certainly follows the tried-and-true formula used by many coming-of-age movies that have preceded it.  The difference being that the moving, realistic performances more than make up for the lack of originality of the story.  CODA will definitely tug at your heart strings, but it does so honestly, without relying on melodrama or sentimentality.  The movie is a big win for inclusive storytelling on several fronts.  First, Ruby’s family is portrayed by actors who are deaf in real life.  Second, its honest depiction of Ruby’s family members shows how, contrary to cinematic cliches, they act just like normal people.  (They enjoy drinking beer, smoking and having sex.)   Finally, and most importantly, CODA serves as a prime example of how, with a modicum of effort, people with disabilities or impairments can participate in society just like everybody else.  Highly Recommended.

CODA is the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), a young girl in Gloucester, Massachusetts who splits time between high school and her family’s fishing business.  The opening sequence of the movie makes it clear that Ruby can sing, very well to be honest, but her father and brother pay no attention to her.  That’s because she’s a Child of Deaf Adults, or CODA.  (The musical definition of that word also applies, by the way.)  She has a crush on fellow ‘schooler Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and impulsively joins the choir to attract his attention.  (We’ve all been there, amiright?)  The class teacher is Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), or Mr. V if you can’t roll your R’s.  Ruby has never sung in front of other people before, and flees with stage fright the first day.  She returns the next day and tells Mr. V that she is self conscious because she talked funny when she started school.  He tells her that what matters when you sing is if you have something to say, not how pretty you sound.  He drives this point home by telling her that  David Bowie characterized Dylan’s singing as “sand and glue”.  (I’ve been a fan of Bowie for years and somehow hadn’t heard that anecdote.)

The next day, Mr. V has the class singing Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On”.  Teach definitely has cajones, because I’d be afraid of angry parents confronting me over having their sweet, innocent child sing a song about sex.  He calls Ruby to the front and has her sing in front of the class.  Her voice is nice, but barely above a whisper.  He prods her, then the entire class to do the “little dog, big dog” breathing exercise.  (I had never heard of this before, either.)  When he sees that Ruby’s fully engaging her core, Mr. V has her take it from the top.  I admit, I got chills hearing Ruby finally cut loose, full of passion and feeling.

Mr. V notices Ruby doing the old “checking out him to see if he’s checking me out” routine with Miles, and sees an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.  He needs two singers to perform a duet, and recruits them to sing “You’re All I Need To Get By”.  (Yeah, Mr. V’s tastes lean towards “classic” songs.)  The pairing would go a long way towards helping Ruby get Miles’ attention, and possibly affection, in the process, and there’s nothing wrong with that, right?

On the homefront, after she’s helped hauling in the day’s catch, Ruby serves as the family’s conduit to the hearing world.  She’s their full-time translator, negotiating the price for their catch, attending her mother and father’s doctor appointments and helping her friend Gertie communicate with her brother Leo.  Like most teenagers, Ruby alternates between feeling embarrassed and mortified by her family’s behavior, but there’s a strong, mutual love between them.

Eventually, Ruby admits to her parents (Tony Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) that she’s taking singing lessons that hopefully will earn her a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music.  Her parents respond to her with disbelief and offer no support, so Ruby spends the following morning swimming with Miles.  Without Ruby on board, Frank and Leo receive multiple citations from the Coast Guard.  (You must have a hearing person on board that can hear emergencies on the radio.)  Now Frank must pay heavy fines in order to get his boat back into the water.  This leads to a crossroads for Ruby and her family.  Will she  sacrifice her love of singing and college to help out her family?  Will her family actually let her do that, now that they know about her dreams and how close she is to achieving them?

Ruby’s story definitely has an American Idol “small town girl with incredible talent” feel to it.  (I haven’t watched it in a while, but Ruby’s bio echoes that of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, and probably many others.)  Regardless, I still found Ruby’s character arc  affecting.  Anytime I hear a young, aspiring person belt out a tune as if they’re channeling the Motown greats of long ago, it gets me.

CODA is like many other coming-of-age movies, combining two plot lines that are typical of the genre.  First, there’s the story of a young family member who struggles to break free of familial obligations and small-mindedness so that they can experience the world.  Boyhood and Ladybird are prime examples of this.  Second, there’s the story where the young family member is gifted in some way and must push their way past fear and self-doubt to achieve their fullest potential.  A representative from this category would be Whiplash.

While stories of young adults trying to shed their obligations to help with the family business are nothing new, Ruby’s story is different because her family relies not only on her physical labor, but her ability to hear.  Since her mother, father and older brother are deaf, Ruby has acted as the family’s translator since she was a child.  (Frank actually admits that because the family was so dependent upon Ruby from early on, she was never a child.)  As a result, they’ve kept to themselves and leaned on Ruby to interact with people who can hear.  (Ruby’s mother Jackie refers to the other fishermen’s wives as “hearing bitches”.)  Ruby is the one who negotiates the prices for their daily catch and translates her father’s sign language at meetings.  With Ruby as their conduit to the hearing world, they’ve never bothered to learn how to read lips.  Her family is effectively holding her back because they’re completely dependent upon her.  Surprisingly, Leo is the only one who wants her to go.  He’s frustrated that his parents look to his younger sister as the family savior and ignore his idea to set-up their own company as a way for all of the fishermen to compete with the local board.

CODA hits many of the same beats of coming-of-age stories.  Ruby rebels, which puts the family’s fishing business in a tight spot.  She falls in love with her duet partner, there’s a choir recital with her family in the audience and a finale where Ruby sings her application for a scholarship.  CODA makes several key detours along the way to Ruby’s eventual triumph, however.

The movie isn’t just about Ruby, but how she and her family need to step outside of their mutually-shared comfort zone.  All of them need to find the courage to interact directly with the hearing world, something they’ve mostly avoided.  Also, both sides are confronted with taking risks that will expose them to failure, but also give them the chance to reap significant rewards.  Just like Ruby has to get past her insecurities of singing in front of strangers, Frank and Jackie have to let go of using Ruby as their crutch and trust that Leo’s collective will work out.

Movies in the coming-of-age genre are usually filled with moments that tug at your heart strings.  While CODA definitely has those, it builds its emotional impact honestly.  It never once resorts to using melodrama and sentimentality to manipulate us.  Instead, the characters behave like people do in real life, with complex emotions and contradictory behavior.  Frank and Jackie genuinely love Ruby, but they also are selfish for wanting her to help with the fishing business forever.  Leo loves his sister, but is angry and resentful that his parents always see her as the answer to their family’s problems.  

Even Mr. V, an excellent teacher, has moments when he’s annoyed and irritable.  He’s pissed when he feels Ruby is not respecting his time and talent, just like how most people would react.  When he tersely responds to Ruby’s dismissive characterization of his chosen profession, I imagined every teacher seeing this movie yelling “damn right!” towards the screen, or something a bit more profane.

The crescendo of the movie, the scene of Ruby’s audition at Berklee, ingeniously combines the movie’s themes of family and inclusion in a way that I couldn’t help feeling emotional about.  As a parent of a special needs child, I know personally that even a modest effort towards making something inclusive makes a big difference in a disabled or impaired person’s life.  I can only hope that those people who don’t believe diversity and inclusion are worth the trouble watch this movie.

CODA’s depiction of Ruby’s family is a breath of fresh air in the representation of people who are disabled or handicapped in two ways: portrayal and representation.  Many movies portray people who are disabled as saintly, somehow above everyday human behavior and vices.  In CODA, Ruby’s parents enjoy drinking beer, smoking and having sex.  (Miles is astonished at this because his parents hate each other.)  Frank also enjoys passing gas, and his witty response to Ruby’s disgust is priceless.  Leo also likes to drink and smoke, and has no qualms hooking up with Ruby’s perpetually horny friend Gertie at the drop of a text message.  In other words, Ruby’s family acts like normal everyday people.

Even more importantly, the characters who are deaf are played by actors who are deaf in real life.  Not too long ago, characters who were handicapped or disabled were frequently played by an able-bodied actor.  While I never saw those casting decisions as malicious in intent, the discussions on able-ism in the media raised my awareness of the issue substantially.  From what I’ve seen in 2021, those discussions have had an impact.  Both Eternals (Lauren Ridloff) and the Disney+ series Hawkeye (Alaqua Cox) featured deaf actors portraying characters who were written as deaf.  CODA is the first movie I’ve seen that featured a deaf family portrayed by deaf actors.

While all of the acting in CODA is uniformly solid, Emilia Jones is completely enchanting as Ruby.  She’s undeniably beautiful and shows an incredible range as a performer, making us feel every step on Ruby’s emotional journey.  Jones also learned how to sing, speak in American Sign Language and adopted an American accent for the role.  After seeing her in this movie, I’d expect to see her get a lot more plum starring roles.  (She was previously in the Netflix series Locke and Key, something I haven’t seen but have added to my list.)

Troy Kotsur’s Frank makes the biggest impression, stealing every scene he’s in as Ruby’s father and her family’s gruff patriarch.  A third generation fisherman, he’s lived his life the same way for probably forty years.  (When CODA was released, Kotsur was 52.)  While he works hard to provide for his family, he isn’t terribly responsible.  (The family’s finances are precarious, to say the least.)  Outside of fishing, his main interests seem to be drinking, smoking and having sex with his hot wife Jackie.  He wants everything to stay the same, but external forces (familial and economic) demand that he become the kind of person he’s never needed to be: a responsible adult and sympathetic parent.

Over the course of the movie, Frank loses his grip on the things that defined his life.  While he could have chosen stubbornness in the face of change and adversity, he comes to realize that he must evolve.  Not only must he accept the loss of his daughter’s help, he must forge a new way for his family to earn a living.  Frank’s journey towards maturity may be long overdue and driven out of necessity, but Kotsur makes the character’s transformation sympathetic and relatable, a deft counterpoint to Ruby’s ascendancy to a life full of possibilities.

Eugenio Derbez’s Mr. V naturally is one of those temperamental, brilliant life-changing teachers that the movies love to showcase.  Derbez gives him a prickly edge, and he steals every scene he’s in.  He reminded me of Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, someone who could have pursued a career in music but discovered that he’s an excellent teacher along the way.  The scenes where Mr. V helps Ruby overcome her embarrassment over how others reacted to how her family speaks was particularly moving.  Anyone can sing pretty, but those with something to say are the ones people remember.

Marlee Matlin’s take on Jackie was solid.  I’ve never seen her act before, not even in Children of a Lesser God, her Academy Award-winning performance.  Her performance has some nice moments, particularly when she has to deal with hearing people without Ruby by her side, but it’s a performance in a minor key.

The dictionary defines “coda” as the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure.  CODA is not only about Ruby’s existence as a CODA, but also the conclusion of her childhood and transition into adult life.  It’s story may be  formulaic, but I was completely won over by it’s heartfelt performances and themes of inclusion and personal growth.

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