All aboard as Gemma Creagh looks at the coastal-set coming of age story CODA.
The title of Sian Hader’s film, CODA is an acronym which stands for Child of Deaf Adults. A remake of the 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier, this warm, coming-of-age story focuses on hearing, working-class teenager Ruby Rossi, who’s growing up with her deaf family in the coastal community of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
At the crack of dawn, on a dilapidated fishing boat, Ruby (Emilia Jones) belts out a tune as she sorts the catch of the day with her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and father Frank (Troy Kotsur). Going straight into school, she’s bullied because of her odour and the fact that she falls asleep at her desk thanks to those 3am starts. Neither academic nor popular, Ruby’s only support is her best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who can’t understand why she wants to sign up for choir practice – a form of ‘social suicide’. At home, however, Ruby is no outsider. In the Rossis’ modest and welcoming house, the siblings bicker affectionately over dinner, while Frank and her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) very passionately – and physically – display their love for one another.
When new regulations mean big cuts to the profits of local fishermen, the Rossis struggle to keep their fishing business afloat. Meanwhile, Ruby finds her voice with the help of her intense and passionate choir teacher Mr. Villalobos. (Eugenio Derbez). As Ruby’s confidence and musical ability grows, she realises her future could hold more than she had ever imagined. Ruby begins to train with Mr. Villalobos, working towards an audition for a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music. But as pressures at home mount, she soon finds that she can’t juggle her growing responsibilities to her family and work towards her dream. She has to choose.
Hader is no stranger to pulling heartstrings. An indie darling, she came to the attention of the industry as a director with Tallulah, starring Elliot Page, which was purchased and released by Netflix in 2016. Since then Hader has been honing her skills on well-established and esteemed TV shows Little America, GLOW and Orange is the New Black. But with CODA, she has really tapped into something special. After something of a bidding war between Apple, Amazon and Netflix, this film was bought by Apple at Sundance for a record-breaking $25 Million.
Although told well, the plot’s template of a fearful young woman pushing outside of her comfort zone, beating all the odds stacked against her in the quest of self actualisation, is certainly not the most unique. However, what is tackled beautifully in CODA is the complex and warm representation of Ruby’s relationship with her family. Hader examines their working life, their isolation, and the struggles they face because they are deaf, with great care. Casting all deaf actors in the role, and learning sign language herself, Hader shot 40% of the dialogue in sign language. The true-to-life aesthetics of this film work well. The teenagers actually look young and unfashionable. The fishermen are weathered and rugged with coarse calloused hands. The beauty of the landscape is balanced against the visible poverty of the region.
From societal injustices to class prejudice, CODA is not afraid to deal with weightier themes, yet manages to do so with humanity and humour. Capturing the uniquely teenage experience of embarrassment is one such instance where Ruby translates to her doctor about her parents’ gential rash. A powerful young actress, Emilia Jones proves she can mine those moments for laughter, while still hitting the subsequent dramatic depths required to deliver those emotional gut punches.
CODA hasn’t reinvented the wheel, but it’s a satisfying watch with some truly beautifully rendered sequences.