Sian Hader’s sophomore film after the 2016 Netflix film Tallulah, just broke the record for the biggest acquisition out of Sundance. Apple Studio’s whooping deal of 25 Million Dollars for CODA – which literally refers to Children of Deaf Adults is a feat for indie cinema’s feature. If the abbreviation is not a more perfect way to describe the film, then think of it as a talented young girl’s coming of age journey as she tries to find the balance between her urge to sing and the co-dependent nature of the unavoidable situation on the family front.
More so, if ‘CODA’ feels overly familiar then it’s because – it is. This is a premise tailor-made to be turned into a crowdpleaser that makes you both happy and sad. The fact that Sian Heder’s film is actually based on Éric Lartigau’s La famille Bélier only makes it a perfect Sundance opener. The difference between the two films is simple – the original film had the family managing a farm and here, the premise is set across American shores.
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The film starts at the Sea. We see a family of three – a fisherman, his son, and the daughter working hard to make a good catch. The song blaring on the speaker is accompanied by the daughter’s lovely voice. In spite of working really hard, the family – which also includes the mother, finds themselves in a financial fix most of the time. The biggest reason for that has to do with being paid too low by the middlemen. That said, the mother and the father keep it real light on the family front. Both of them and their children are incredibly close and there is an air of empathy and togetherness between them.
The lens in Sian Heder’s film set through Ruby (Emilia Jones) who is not just the eyes and ears to this tale, but also the official ear for her entire family. The mother Jackie, the brother Leo and father Frank have oodles of affection for each other. The disability aside, these are funny characters who can lighten up anyone’s mood if they would only listen to their communicative stances. The family loves one another and sticks with each other through thick and thin. However, Ruby – who has been a translator for the family to this date is growing up.
Citing a spontaneous decision to join the coir, Ruby finally realizes that something other than her family is important to her. Signing gives her a feeling of euphoria and oneness. It is also one of the only things she believes she is good at. This feeling is further affirmed by her music teacher Bernardo Villalobos ( a loud Eugenio Derbez) who asks her to come to him for lessons so that she can prepare for music school. This gives her confidence and a slight belief in herself. The downside is, she has never done anything without her family. The suddenness of a decision on the financial front also puts Ruby in a bigger dilemma. A dilemma that she has to either get an answer to, or just ignore and keep going on until she realizes that she has exhausted herself.
Heder’s film is familiar. Her storytelling is also quite conventional. This is both a plus and a huge letdown for a drama that is truly hearting at its core. It’s a gentle film that looks at the core of a family (in this case a deaf family) and questions what it’s like to need another person. The co-dependency that every single person has with their family is both a boon and a curse. It’s a boon because, no matter how unpredictable, ruthless and tiresome your life becomes, you always have a loving, known shoulder and a home to come back to. It’s a curse because there’s no space left for you to grow when decisions and choices are made for you.
In, Hader’s CODA, Ruby has been acting like an adult and an interpreter for her family all her life. This has restricted her from having an identity and liking beyond that. She has always enjoyed music and the ‘hard to explain feeling’ is the only thing she has ever felt in her life. Her teacher is just a grooming tool who gives her confidence in believing that there’s a bigger identity waiting for her on the other side of the family life and if she doesn’t make the bigger leap, she’ll be left frustrated all her life.
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The film has a pretty basic, run-of-the-mill tone that doesn’t give a lot of grounds for her emotional moments to truly excel the convenient bounds set by this coming-of-age arc. However, her ability to make a few well-rounded characters still pulls a few pretty strong punches. The single greatest moment in the film comes when Ruby is up there on the stage and Hader cuts off the sound to let us truly be in the head of her family sitting in the crowd. It is a roaring, saddening, and truly incredible sequence that uplifts the film all at once. The confession scenes with her mother and father are also quite moving but what truly stood out for me is the scene where her brother finally confronts Ruby and what it’s like to be him.
Talking about the performances, Emilia Jones truly stands out. From waking up at 3 am in the morning to going to school to her music lessons, the dilemma in her characters is a complex one. Jones’ does her best to never make Ruby as corny as the premise pushes her towards. She maintains a balance between the mainstream cynicism of the narrative and the indie spirit of Hader’s film by boosting a performance that is truly heartfelt. The rest of the cast does their job well but no one is as memorable as they could have been.
CODA is a film that will truly connect with people who are not looking for something too heavy to ruin their day. It is funny, sweet, and sentimental in the right amounts. I only wish it had some more heart that did not make it feel familiar and worn out.