Expectations for Sian Heder’s film, “CODA,” have been sky-high since the film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. After all, it took home the grand jury prize, audience award, director’s award, and ensemble award. Safe to say, it made a lot of noise coming out of the festival. These accolades, along with rave reviews, made the decision to pay a festival-record $25 million for the distribution rights easier for Apple. “CODA” not only lives up to the hype, but it is also easily the best film of 2021 thus far.
“CODA” follows Ruby (Jones), a teenage child of deaf parents (hence the name), who comes to a crossroads when she has the opportunity to audition for music school. Her role as an interpreter is vital to the family business as she is the only member in the family who can hear, thus she must choose between staying home or going to college.
What “CODA” is able to accomplish in an under two-hour runtime is astonishing. There is a lot at play going on all at once. Ruby has her family’s fishing business to attend to, not to mention the responsibility of being the mediator in every conversation that her family members have. On top of that, Ruby is a senior in high school, going through the same teenage angst everyone has felt on some level. We witness Ruby take on the challenges of talking to the person we have a crush on or bring too scared to sing even if there is talent inside of us. These concerns Ruby has may seem trivial, but the fact that most of us have gone through similar experiences adds to the authenticity of the film. While you may not be able to necessarily relate to Ruby’s family dynamics, there is certainly a lot in her high school life that you can latch onto.
While the runtime is well-paced, it can also be a complaint. In “CODA,” certain plot points move a bit too swiftly. There are plenty of conflicts and roadblocks that do arise but are typically resolved quickly such as the family’s issues with their fishing business. It’s a flaw shared with “Minari,” and the tight runtime of 111 minutes doesn’t allow for much expansion. This results in the plot resorting to some conventions, but the charismatic cast makes up for that. An extra 15 minutes would have been welcomed.
The family dynamics of “CODA” are equally as important and authentic as Ruby’s high school life. Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin play Ruby’s parents Frank and Jackie. The love they have for their child is apparent, but their hesitation to let her flee the nest is equally apparent. When Ruby proposes the idea of going to college, they are clearly taken aback and don’t know what to do. “The Mitchell’s vs. The Machines” played with a similar theme and family dynamic. Being that they cannot hear, it is fair to say they are a bit skeptical as they aren’t able to judge Ruby’s voice for themselves, which only adds to their distrust in this idea of going to music school. “Sound of Metal” also dealt with the challenges for people who are unable to hear and have some connection to the music business. “CODA” takes a page out of the book of “Sound of Metal” in a couple of scenes. There
is a scene where Ruby’s music class is singing “It’s Your Thing,” and the sound mixing must be applauded. You get a bit of each distinct voice in the class as Mr. Villalobos (Derbez) roams across the room to different students. Another standout scene is Ruby’s big duet performance. As she sings, we get placed into the shoes of her parents as the sound disappears. We get glances around the audience and their reactions, including tears and applause. This is one way that “CODA” creatively shows us what it is like to either be deaf or be in the household of deaf people. A scene earlier in the film where Ruby is attempting to do homework at the dinner table is an equally effective scene. This time, we get her point of view, as her parents loudly wash the grill or clank dishes while being oblivious to how hard it is to concentrate in that type of environment.
While Emilia Jones holds the film down as Ruby, the entire cast is remarkable. Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin have believable chemistry as husband and wife, and they provide the best comedic bits. Eugenio Derbez almost steals the show from Jones as the music teacher that we all need in our life. Daniel Durant plays Ruby’s older brother, Leo, and has great moments of brother-sister bickering with Jones.
Even despite some flaws, “CODA” is the best film of the year so far, and is a grand slam for Apple TV+, which needs movies like these to complement their TV catalog. A loaded fall and winter slate is ahead, but “CODA” will be able to withstand that come awards season. It’s a heartwarming and joyful coming-of-age film with great representation for the deaf community. It is furthering the path that “Sound of Metal” paved just a year ago with fantastic performances from Kotsur and Matlin, who are both deaf in real life. Emilia Jones will also be a name to make a note of and expect to see her pop up in many more films in the coming years. Her singing is also phenomenal in the film, and the soundtrack is a must-have. Major props to Sian Heder as well, who had only one feature-length directing credit prior to “CODA.” Her name, along with Jones, should be on everyone’s list when it comes time for award nominations.
“CODA” is streaming on Apple TV+ now.