by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
This 2021 movie is a re-make of the 1914 French film, La Famille Belier. Written and directed by Sian Heder, it is available in theatres and on Apple TV+, a streaming service that offers a free one-week trial of its $4.95/month service— of which I took advantage.
Two things stand out about the film. An unabashed feel-good film, it achieves its goal without a trace of mawkishness. More, it is deeply moving.
Its title, CODA, has a double meaning. It is both an acronym for children of deaf adults and it is a term signifying the end of a musical passage. A clever choice because its protagonist, Ruby, is a hearing child in an otherwise culturally deaf family and because the film is a classic bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale in which Ruby moves toward a career in song. Intense tension inheres in that goal’s competition with her loyalties and life in the culturally deaf family of her origin.
This plot is brought into high relief by a brilliant cast of characters. There is Ruby Rossi herself played by Emelia Jones) winding up a high school career marked by feelings of rejection by her peers. There is her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), a rambunctious third generation fishing boat operator, her mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), a former high school beauty queen, and her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), who is chafed by his sense that he is unable to have enough of a role in shaping the family. All the Rossi’s, save Ruby, are culturally deaf, as, parenthetically, are the actors portraying them.
Then there is Bernado Villalobos, (Eugenio Derbez) the high-school choir director charged with producing the annual school concert. He recognizes Ruby’s nascent singing talent and urges her to seek a scholarship at the Berklee College of Music. He also pairs her with Miles, a fellow senior (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), to perform a duet at the concert, with whom Ruby becomes romantically involved.
The film opens with Ruby, her brother and father, working on the family commercial fishing boat. They bring the catch ashore and, like others in the fleet, are unfairly treated by the middlemen buying their catches. Not only is Ruby a vital member of the Rossi fishing crew, she also becomes an ambassador, literally voicing her family’s views in attempts by the local fishermen fighting to rectify the exploitative injustice with which they are beset. Both issues play out in tandem with Ruby’s burgeoning interest in a musical career and the time and effort demanded by her musical mentor, Villalobos. Ruby becomes increasingly torn by the competing demands of family needs and loyalties on the one hand and personal aspirations on the other.
Two remarkable scenes remain in my mind. One is that of Ruby’s parents at the concert, unable to hear her sing and to appreciate her artistry, must take cues about how to react from the behavior of the hearing audience. The second scene is one in which Ruby’s father asks her to sing her solo for him and uses his hand to her throat literally seeking the feel of her music.
The film is a feel-good effort. But it will leave you with a lump in your throat, and maybe tears in your eyes.