There’s little surprising about the shape of director Sian Heder’s latest feature: It’s a family drama and a coming-of-age tale that combines familiar beats about finding yourself, breaking free of your family, and making plenty of mistakes along the way into one tear-jerking package. Yet what “CODA” lacks in storytelling originality, it more than makes up for with other touches of ingenuity. Chief among them is that it’s a film that focuses on a deaf family and treats their woes as being just as worthy — and relatable — as innumerable other stories that, at least, initially feel just like it.
As Heder’s film evolves and leans further into the patterns of the genre, that seeming familiarity becomes one of its greatest assets. You may think you know this story, and you probably do. But you’ve never quite seen it like this, with these characters, and with this care paid to an underrepresented portion of the population. In fitting so neatly inside expectations, Heder makes a sterling argument for more films like it — which is to say, movies that focus on under-served characters and performers (all of Heder’s deaf characters are played by deaf actors, the film is subtitled) that still contain massive appeal for everyone. It’s a crowd-pleaser that works its formula well, even as it breaks new ground.
Anchored by star-making turn from Emilia Jones as teenage malcontent Ruby Rossi, “CODA” takes its title from Ruby’s lot in life: as the child of deaf adults, her vibrant parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur). In fact, Ruby is the only hearing person in her household — her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf — and she’s long served as the Rossis’ hearing proxy to the world. And while the Rossis have mostly avoided being a part of the wider world, their fortunes remain entirely tied up in it and, by extension, in Ruby.
The Rossis have been fishermen for decades, and every morning, Frank, Leo, and Ruby set out on their trawler to gather an early morning catch. Ruby, a senior in high school, doesn’t just get up at the crack of dawn to do a man-sized job before heading off to class, she’s also the one charged with bargaining for how much their haul will sell for. It’s a tough ask in a town dominated by conglomerates that institute “bullshit quotas” on their hardest-working denizens. After that, it’s off to high school, where Ruby and her family are the subjects of teasing and bullying, while Ruby’s entire social life consists of her brassy pal Gertie (Amy Forsyth) and a simmering crush on Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
Heder’s knack for lived-in authenticity — from her sets to costumes, locations to casting — helps some of the film’s earliest machinations go down a touch easier. Ruby, it seems, may have too much on her plate, but she’s also harboring a big secret: she’s a wonderful singer, and perhaps she can make something of that gift. That Ruby would be so possessed by a talent that her family literally cannot experience for themselves sounds like the making of an eye-rolling ham-fest, but Heder studiously avoids layering on cheesy twists. “CODA” feels real, even in those moments ripped from the coming-of-age playbook. That’s no small feat.
While Ruby and her family are always vivid — this is not only a star-making turn for Jones, it’s also a reminder of just how many layers Matlin contains — the film’s supporting characters must labor through a first act that draws them with painful broad strokes. Gertie is initially introduced as something of a boy-crazy flake, while Miles only opens his mouth to sing (talking? what’s that?) and Ruby’s would-be mentor Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) is presented simply as a scarf-flipping fast-talker who loves nothing more than to make his teenage charges sing inappropriate songs, like “Let’s Get It On.” Eventually, all of these characters will get their own dimensions, but early experiences with them are something to be plodded through.
Perhaps, however, that’s the point, as Heder hews closely to the expectations of the coming-of-age story, all the better to package it with the same gravitas as a film about a less interesting — and less often seen on the big screen — family and its evolutions. Ruby’s problems are deeply relatable, but the precise nature of them is unique, and if early pieces of plotting feel done-to-death (the sassy best friend, the flashy mentor, the crazy dream), it really only reminds that, well, they haven’t been. Not like this.
As Ruby struggles to balance her life, setting her sights on a major collegiate choice just as her family preps a business plan that hinges on her ability to be at their beck and call, “CODA” ramps up to some necessary blood-letting. The result is a powerful, probing exploration of familial bonds that isn’t narratively groundbreaking, but speaks to the special power at work in Heder’s film. It may look recognizable, but Heder and her formidable cast and compelling emotion make sure it doesn’t sound like anything else out there.
“CODA” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.