For the uninitiated, CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adults. More specifically, the hearing child of deaf adults. And the one at the centre of Sian Heder’s sophomore feature (her first, Tallulah, was shown at both Sundance and its London spin-off five years ago) finds herself with painfully torn loyalties – between her family and her love of music, which pull her in a different directions.
Ruby (Emilia Jones) comes from a fishing family, accompanying her father and brother (both deaf) as they trawl the local waters, just about managing to earn a living. She’s essential to the family as a whole and its business: all of them sign, so she’s their go-between, their connection to the outside world as well as negotiating fish prices with the dealers and making sure they get a fair price for their catch. The early starts and work in general start to take their toll on her school work but joining the choir gives her more than just an interest: her teacher’s conviction that she has a great voice strengthen her confidence, her sense of identity – and pose a problem. He wants her to audition for music college, which would take her away from home.
A re-working of French film, La Famille Belier, it immediately raises the subject of deaf roles being played by actors who are themselves hearing impaired. It’s a no-brainer for Heder, with the parents and brother all played by deaf actors: Oscar winner Marlee Matlin is the mother, Troy Kotsur the father and Daniel Durant the brother. All are fluent signers – the attempts of hearing people to use their language frequently result in entertainingly embarrassing failures – as is Ruby, their unofficial interpreter. And, while there are moments when she feels shut out of the family – “It’s always been the three of you” she complains to her mother – the four are as close knit as they come, so the prospect of her having another life away from the family home and leaving them without their link to the rest of the community is daunting and painful for all of them.
For a film with a huge heart and an even bigger sense of humour, CODA never fights shy of the issues that go with being deaf in a hearing world. Ruby is taunted by other girls at school who think it’s funny to imitate how deaf people speak, her brother Leo gets into a fight in a bar with a lout who verbally abuses him, while dad Frank finds himself in trouble for going to sea but not responding to calls from the coastguard because there’s nobody on board to hear them. Most moving of all is when Ruby’s parents are in the audience for her concert. It starts with a large grin: unable to hear the music, the two discuss in sign language what they should have for dinner. Spaghetti is the favourite. But the laughter stops abruptly when Heder introduces us to their experience of the event. Total silence. Those tissues are never far away.
The hand-picked cast all bring a ring of truth to their roles – Kotsur is gleefully eccentric as the dad – but this is the film that should make everybody take notice of Emilia Jones. Her Ruby is like any teenager, trying to find her way through the labyrinth of growing up, except she’s had to be an adult sooner than most and the pain of choosing to stay with her family or strike out on her own is tangibly agonising. In a role where she needs to sing as well, she shows off a great voice – no surprise, really, when you consider who her dad is. In fact, music plays a bigger part in the film than you’d expect, with a terrific soundtrack of classic hits that reek of nostalgia. And then there’s the title. Yes, it’s a musical pun, but if there’s any justice, this film won’t bring Jones’s career to a halt. From what we see here, it’s just the beginning.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Sundance 2021 | Dir. Sian Heder | Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo.