Review of Sian Heder’s CODA

Review by Kara Headley
Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copyedited and Posted
by Iliana Cosme-Brooks

CODA (2021). 1hr 51min. Written and Directed by Sian Heder. Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant.

The Rossi family sits together in the back of a pickup truck. Left to right Ruby, Frank, Jackie, and Leo.

CODA is a coming-of-age story that follows seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) during her senior year of high school as she tries to balance her passion for music and her home responsibilities. She is the only hearing member of her family, a CODA (child of deaf adults). From ordering at restaurants to negotiating fish prices for the fishing business run by her parents and brother, Ruby has been interpreting for her family since she could speak. 

When she joins the choir senior year of high school, her latent love for music and singing comes to the forefront. Her choir teacher, Bernado Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), sees her talent and passion and offers to help her prepare an audition for the Berklee College of Music. Ruby finds herself split in two directions: her obligations to helping her family with the fishing business and a passion for music her parents and brother cannot share. Throughout the film, she learns to break away from the expectations others have put on her and those that she has put on herself, and literally and metaphorically finds her own voice.

The script is beautifully written by director Sian Heder, adapted from the French film La Famille Belier. The relationships between Ruby, her parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur), and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are a blend of loving and strained, the love shining through even during hard times and fights. When Ruby shares her wish to attend music school, her mom signs, “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” While a hurtful response to her daughter’s dream, we can sense through Matlin’s nuanced portrayal that she’s not mad at Ruby for wanting to sing, but rather frustrated that her passion happens to be one she cannot share.

Kotsur’s animated performance brings much depth and humor to the character of Frank. Throughout the film, he vibrantly portrays his emotions, like his frustrations when not being taken as seriously as the hearing fishers or his desire to connect with his daughter’s music. He brings a lot of the humor in the script to life with his vivid way of signing. Heder said in an essay with the LA Times, “Troy is the most inventive signer out there. His ability to play with the language is magical. The salty accent I had initially imagined for Frank came alive with Troy’s hands.”

CODA is nominated for three Oscars this year, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Troy Kotsur. Kotsur is the first deaf male actor to be nominated for an Academy Award, and only the second deaf actor to be nominated. His CODA co-star, Marlee Matlin, was nominated and won in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God. CODA is the first film with a primarily deaf/hard-of-hearing cast to be nominated for Best Picture. This film, as well as Darius Marder’s 2021 Oscar nominated film Sound of Metal, brings hope that we will start to see more deaf stories being told on the big screen and celebrated in front of large audiences. 

Later in the film, when Ruby’s parents and brother attend her choir concert, they have no way of knowing if their daughter is any good for themselves. They can only rely on the word of Ruby’s friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth) and the audience’s reaction to Ruby’s performance. The camera sits behind the family and the audio fades out. We see Ruby sing, but we hear nothing. We experience the concert now as they do. It’s alienating to be in the center of a moment those around you are clearly enjoying without a line to draw you in. For just for a moment, we see the world as they must.

Toward the end of the film, we hear Ruby sing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” The song is painfully fitting for a young girl stuck between two worlds, seeing each through the lens of the other. Jones’s portrayal of Ruby throughout the film is tender. Ruby is often shy and scared in her own skin, but beneath it is someone fiery, fiercely protective, and seeking the beauty in the world and the people around her. Ruby sings, “I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from give and take and still somehow, it’s love’s illusions that I recall, I really don’t know love at all.” She has given parts of her childhood and been shaped by giving her family a voice in a world inaccessible to them, but now her family sees her dreams and can continue their journey to seeing all that she is.

CODA can be watched on Apple TV+. Learn more about Kara’s work here.