Coda is a word that probably means something musically to people who know the definition of it. Or you think of it as an extra button on the end of a tale. Even before I knew what the word actually meant, I occasionally popped into a music shop in Edinburgh named Coda. It was ridiculously expensive, and the first time I had seen any import CDs for sale (which explained a fair few of the high prices). None of that is really relevant here, where CODA is used to signify Child Of Deaf Adults, but it also provides a very satisfying extra layer to everything onscreen.
Emilia Jones plays Ruby, the child of deaf adults at the centre of this narrative. Her life is already busier than most, and she carries a great responsibility on her shoulders, spending a fair bit of time around her schoolday hours helping her family with their fishing business. Ruby can translate for them, speaking to others who cannot read ASL, and she wants to help them get better rewarded for their hard work. Ruby also has a talent for singing, and one teacher offers to help her get good enough to audition for a music college, but it’s hard to stay focused on a pathway that will take her further away from parents who may never be able to recognise her gift.
Written and directed by Siân Heder, adapting the 2014 original film, La Famille Bélier, CODA is as enjoyable and moving as it is satisfying. You can plot out almost every major moment from the first scene, and I realised at the halfway point that I was waiting for the big moments to come that I knew would turn me all moist-eyed and wobbly-lipped. I needed the film to play out almost exactly as I expected it to, almost holding my breath in the run up to what I hoped would feel elating and cathartic.
Aside from Jones, who is excellent in her role, the central family unit is portrayed by deaf actors. Marlee Matlin, arguably the best-known cast member, is the mother, Jackie, and Troy Kotsur is the father, Frank, and the film features some great scenes that allow them to show how firmly in love, and lust, they remain. Daniel Durant is Ruby’s brother, Leo, adding extra friction, as siblings so often do, and his own path through life, quite settled and/or resigned to how things are, provides a nice contrast to Ruby’s longing to get away. Eugenio Derbez is very enjoyable as the teacher who untaps the potential of our lead, and everyone else onscreen convinces, whether playing carefree teens, hardy fishermen, or other work colleagues kept distant from the central family by their lack of ASL knowledge.
Although some may roll their eyes at movie awards, and there are always so many other contenders that aren’t even up for consideration during those campaign seasons, the fact that CODA won an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (given to Kotsur) is, much like the film itself, as hugely satisfying. It’s a warm and witty crowd-pleaser, with a couple of unexpectedly bawdy moments that will prompt a guffaw out of anyone expecting something more serious and bleak, and I don’t have anything against that kind of film being rewarded when it is so well-handled. The fact that it also showcases some superb deaf actors without reducing them to characters identified only by their deafness is also a big plus.
Yes, you have to read subtitles. Or maybe you could learn ASL (seriously, we should all strive to learn at least a few basic words and phrases in ASL). If that puts you off giving this a watch then it’s your loss. CODA may not appeal to cynical viewers, but it’s an easy one to recommend to anyone willing to be made to laugh and cry in (almost) equal measure.
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