CODA Will Steal Your Heart and Leave You in Pieces

Dept. of Ice Cream Castles


Emilia Jones is astounding. She plays Ruby, the sole hearing member of her family, the titular CODA, or “Child of Deaf Adults.” About half way into the movie, there is a moment at a town hall meeting where a group of angry fishermen are engaged in a heated back and forth with the dock bigwigs who are extorting them. Ruby is in this crowded room with her father, Frank, and her brother, Leo, both of whom are deaf, and interpreting what’s going on. Everything then reaches a climax when Frank decides to take a stand against these unscrupulous middlemen, with Ruby translating what he has to say for the rest of the room.

As the scene plays out, it slowly begins to dawn on you just how much of a feat this is. For this to work, Jones doesn’t just need to know her lines, but everyone else’s lines in the scene, and then also be able to translate it into ASL, sign it, and act it, in a moment that is tense, dramatic, and funny all at the same time. She nails it. In fact, Emilia Jones nails absolutely everything everything she needs to do in this movie.

Ruby, you see, has a lot on her plate. She’s struggling through school. She’s working on the family’s fishing boat. She’s negotiating the price of their catch. She’s helping her deaf parents communicate with their doctor. She needs to be everywhere at once, her entire life completely dedicated to family above all else. Things begin to change, however, when she joins the school’s choir club and discovers that she’s actually really good at singing. Encouraged by her choir teacher, the Holland-esque Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), Ruby trains to audition for a spot at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

The story is a familiar one. A teenage girl discovers a passion for a talent she never knew she had, and is torn between pursuing her dreams and being a dutiful daughter. Yes, it is a coming-of-age tale that we’ve seen a hundred times before, complete with oblivious parents and a disgruntled sibling, a feisty and inspirational music teacher, the sparks of young love, and even a climactic make or break singing audition at the end. But CODA is one of those Hollywood rarities. It is an old idea that’s been infused with new life. And it is unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Deaf Culture 101


Unlike La Famille Bélier, the French movie that it’s based on, CODA doesn’t use deafness as a gimmick. Writer/director Siân Heder (Tallulah, Orange Is the New Black) has such respect and reverence for the story she’s telling that you can see it in every single frame. There is more here than just the casting of deaf actors in deaf roles. This isn’t a diversity play, but a meaningful look into deaf culture and the inner lives of deaf people.

The way Heder seamlessly blends speaking and signing is absolutely stunning. When we see ASL subtitled on our screens, and not translated through an interpreter, it reinforces the notion that it is more than just a method of communication, but a rich and vibrant language. One that infuses CODA with energy, and intimacy, and joy.

There are so many key scenes in this movie that aren’t punctuated by any music or sound whatsoever. Whether it’s a heart-to-heart between mother and daughter, or a moment of deep connection between father and daughter, all we hear are the movement of hands, and the rustling of clothes, and the slightest whispers of respiration. A lesser director would be afraid of quietude. Not Heder. She embraces the silence completely, and by doing so, creates a completely unique cinematic experience.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing


When we talk about how well a movie is written, it often goes beyond just the dialogue spoken (or in this case, signed) by the actors. A screenplay isn’t just prose. It’s more like a blueprint for everything you see you on screen. And CODA is a movie that is absolutely beautiful in its design. Whether it’s a family dinner, or an argument between siblings, or a gloriously plotted concert sequence, everything in this movie is written with such attention to detail that it feels authentic. What that means is that you care for these people. Immediately and completely.

Take the aforementioned argument between the siblings. It isn’t your typical blow out where each side states their respective grievances, providing context and exposition so that the other – and the audience – can see where they’re coming from. Here there is as much said as there is unsaid between Ruby and Leo. They just fight. As siblings do. And yet, we still manage to see the why. The roots and reasons are crystal clear because every one of their previous interactions sets up that moment perfectly. CODA is a layer cake of text and subtext. It is a testament to the genius of Siân Heder.

And Then There Are the Performances…


All four of the leads are magnificent. Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and Marlee Matlin work together flawlessly. Their chemistry is incredible. They feel like a real family. There is love, and sacrifice, and jealousy between them. And we see it all play out as each one struggles to understand Ruby’s newly awakened desire to sing and how they eventually break down the individual barriers between them.

Heder directs them with such empathy, constantly flipping viewpoints so we get to experience this story from every perspective. Each one is given their moment to shine, with Troy Kotsur making an especially strong case for that Best Actor Oscar come March 2022.

I love this movie. Completely and without reservation. It is a wonderful reminder of everything that cinema should be. A way for us to step into other lives and other worlds. To make us think. To make us feel. To inspire us to be more. To be that machine for empathy, that allows us to look at the world in a different way, and maybe even understand it a little better.

So grab a loved one, keep a box of tissues at hand, and watch CODA. I promise it’s the best movie you will see this year. (And a true Best Picture contender if I ever saw one.)

Since you’re here, why not check out our interviews with CODA writer/director Siân Heder, Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and the amazing Emilia Jones.

CODA is now streaming on Apple TV+

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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