CODA arrives in cinemas and on Apple TV Friday 13th August 2021.
Anyone who has ever watched one of the countless cooking programmes on our TV screens knows one thing. Many of us can take a set of ingredients laid out before us and follow a printed recipe to create a delicious meal. However, while the result is tasty, it is nothing new; it lacks spark, creativity and invention. But, some people take those ingredients and use imagination, flair, and passion to create something unique. These people are culinary artists, their ingredients, a mere canvas in creating a gastronomic work of art.
Filmmaking is similar, with some directors and writers following the tried and tested genre recipe. While at the same time, others take these base components as a mere canvas on which to create something new—the resulting movie paying homage to its genre roots while glowing with a rare, unique beauty. CODA is one of those rare gems. Its roots, buried deep within the classic coming-of-age family drama, its creativity held within the flourishing buds of vibrant colour and diversity its roots allow.
Written and directed by Siân Heder, CODA is a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier. But, unlike so many remakes, CODA not only improves on the film it takes inspiration from but does so with such heart, warmth and precision that it transcends the genre of its birth. CODA is not only stunning in composition and performances but wrapped in a deep conversation on diversity and inclusion. And while it is primarily a feel-good movie that never attempts to bypass its thematic roots, the perfection of its execution is something to behold. The result is an emotional powerhouse and love letter to the enduring strength of the coming-of-age drama. It’s narrative, both familiar and new, as we follow Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a high-school girl and fisherwoman who is the only hearing person in her family.
We first meet Ruby on the family fishing boat with her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). With their catch hauled in, the trio begins to sort the fish as Ruby sings along to the classic tracks emanating from a small radio, the waves lapping against the deck. While at the same time, Frank and Leo remain silent, exchanging smiles as they prepare for a return to port. And as the boat moors, it’s Ruby who haggles with local buyers—signing her conversations for Frank and Leo, who rely on Ruby’s ability to hear.
Heder quickly establishes Ruby’s role as the family interpreter as she bridges the divide between a world of sound and silence. But, for Ruby, this essential role in the family dovetails with school, and as she rushes from the port to the school gates, it is clear Ruby’s life is torn between family duty and personal freedom.
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At this point, it’s worth highlighting the sheer power, expression and joy of the sign language at the heart of CODA. Here, each silent conversation between Frank, Leo, mum Jackie (Marlee Matlin)and Ruby is wrapped in energy, humour, emotion and expression. And if you thought Sound of Metal did a superb job reflecting deaf culture and language, CODA steps it up a gear.
Ruby is shy and detached at school, while her best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), is the opposite, a powerhouse of adolescent hormones who lusts after Ruby’s brother. However, despite the constant bullying and jibes from fellow students, Ruby longs to find her place and purpose outside the family unit. And with a silent crush on Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a cute, sensitive, music-loving guy. Ruby signs up for the school choir just to be near to him. After all, she loves singing, even if she thinks her voice may not be up to scratch.
However, it turns out that Ruby has a fantastic singing voice, and the choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) quickly spots her potential. But, can Ruby balance a newfound love of singing with her home duties? And will her family understand her new passion for music in a home of silence? As the family fishing business faces turmoil and Ruby tries to please everyone, she is caught between two competing worlds.
Emilia Jones and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo star in CODA. ©️Apple TV
It is within its conversations on opposing worlds that CODA finds its unique voice. The pressure on Ruby to act as the link between the hearing and nonhearing world, beautifully and sensitively represented. Here, Ruby’s problems, concerns, hopes and dreams are relatable while also thoroughly unique. Ruby’s place in the family reflects many of the challenges hearing children of deaf adults (CODA) face. The duties she has grown up with suddenly clashing with a need to build a life outside of the family unit. Here, Heder’s film explores the evolution of the family and the need for change as children grow. The once safe and closed family unit, suddenly thrown into question as children become young adults and search for their own place in the world.
Ruby’s relationship with her mum is particularly affected by this sudden change; her mum neither accepts nor supports her idea of a music career. But, this is embedded in fear, fear of losing her daughter and fear of a hearing world she has felt alienated from for her entire life. One scene in particular hits hard as Ruby finally asks her mother if she wishes she had been born deaf. The answer while cutting is rooted in honesty, enabling mother and daughter to find a path through the turmoil surrounding them. It’s an example of Heder’s ability to take classic coming-of-age themes and layer them with the complexity of two opposing yet interlinked worlds.
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Equally reflective of this complexity is the relationship between Ruby and her older brother. While supportive and loving, Leo believes that the family unit must adapt to a life without Ruby. Meanwhile, Ruby’s dad buries his head, trying to balance the family demands on Ruby with his wife’s fears and son’s desire for change. And this brings me to the performances at the heart of CODA. It’s not often an entire ensemble cast can be described as outstanding. But, with CODA, we have a truly exceptional cast who provide masterful performances throughout. The result is a family that feels real, a town you don’t want to leave and a coming-of-age journey that finds an eternal place in your heart.
In the year 2000, a small British film would also achieve this. The film in question was Billy Elliot, and it’s fair to say CODA owes much to this gem some twenty-one years later. After all, here we have an industry in decline (fishing), echoing the slowly eroding mining communities of Billy’s County Durham. Plus, we have a young person with an immense talent her family don’t understand and an opportunity to break free with the guidance of a passionate tutor. Does this similarity diminish CODA’s impact? Not at all; CODA is a modern-day Billy Elliot told from a new perspective, its roots just as strong as Daldry’s movie. Its vision, just as rich and compelling.
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CODA’s heartwarming, emotional, riveting and sublime set of ingredients could have become nothing more than a textbook meal in the wrong hands. But, with Heder, they become a glorious feast that is as close to cinematic perfection as you can get. Heder’s film reminds us that no matter how diverse our communication means may be, the challenge resides in our ability to listen, understand, support, and change.
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