Coda: An irresistible if generic drama

Sian Heder’s Sundance winner pushes all the right emotional buttons

Emilia Jones in Coda, directed by Sian Heder. Photograph: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Film Title: CODA

Director: Sian Heder

Starring: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Eugenio Derbez, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 0 min

Fri, Aug 13, 2021, 05:00


The pessimistic could view the arrival of this irresistible if generic drama as confirmation that our cinematic Christmases really are arriving earlier and earlier.

Sian Heder’s film took the Grand Jury Prize for US drama at this year’s Sundance festival and, following an indecorous bidding war, sold to Apple for a record $25 million. Recent winners such as Minari, Whiplash, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter’s Bone have all gone on to secure nominations for best picture at the Oscars.

Then again, maybe this isn’t really the start of awards season. True, only an utter malcontent could prove entirely resistant to Coda’s charms. Emilia Jones, from Netflix’s Locke & Key, stars as Ruby Rossi, the hearing daughter of a deaf family (the title is an acronym for child of deaf adults) running a perilous fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She discovers a talent for singing and strives for a scholarship to music school. Her parents worry about coping without her help as a translator. 

The film is beautifully acted, broadly funny and indecently moving. But it is hard to ignore the awful familiarity of the beats. Compared to Coda, Minari feels like the most abrasive of experimental dramas.

The excellent Irish actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, the breakout from John Carney’s Sing Street, pops up early on as Miles, a possible duet partner – and maybe more – for the endlessly capable Ruby. Following some disagreements, he remarks that she has “this perfect life”. We are expected to understand her exasperation, but Miles is not entirely wrong. 

Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), Ruby’s parents, exhibit flaws of only the most lovable hues. They have sex noisily when their kid is entertaining in the next room. They sign rude remarks about hearing jobsworths standing a few puzzled feet away. Looming obstacles are there only to be triumphantly overcome.

Heder, director of the effective Tallulah, cannot, however, be faulted for her skilful working of the crowd-pleasing tropes. Never have so many ridiculously likable actors – that’s Marlee Matlin, folks! – played so agreeably off one another. 

The closest thing to an unfriendly voice emerges from the handsome face of Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), Ruby’s music teacher, as he urges her towards a prestigious music school that, more in the tradition of American Idol than Juilliard, allows students to audition with warbly versions of Both Sides Now. There are unavoidable reminders of Whiplash there, but, this being a film with no antagonists, Mr Villalobos is never likely to fling a cymbal at anyone.

Coda is an unqualified success in its relaxed, almost matter-of-fact treatment of how deaf families move through a largely uncomprehending society. Derived from a French film (La Famille Bélier), Heder’s own screenplay positions Ruby like the more integrated child of recent immigrants. Those connections with the outer world are useful. But they also threaten to distance offspring from parents. 

In one of the film’s more daring moments, Jackie admits that she hoped Ruby, like her brother, would be born deaf, but – this being that sort of film – almost immediately accommodated herself to the differences. Indeed, Ruby has become an essential part of the operation. She can bargain with the buyers on the quay. Only she can hear warnings on the radio. For all the family’s proud independence, they have come to rely on Ruby’s comfort within and without the deaf community.

The undeniable cosiness of Coda does nag. The bullies at school have no teeth. The New England surroundings are too consistently gorgeous and the fishing business doesn’t seem quite such a hard graft as it must surely be in the real world. 

But the film ultimately wins with a hankie-dampening denouement that – apologies if this cryptically reveals a spoiler – nods inadvertently towards one of the most moving of Oscar acceptance speeches. That may still prove to be a good omen.

In cinemas and streaming on Apple+ from August 13th