Credit: Sundance Institute
by Morris Yang Featured Film Spotlight

CODA | Siân Heder

August 12, 2021

CODA‘s personal storytelling and intelligent subversion of its middlebrow formulae make for a surprisingly affecting viewing experience.

The title of Siân Heder’s sophomore feature is twofold: an acronym for the “child of deaf adults,” and the concluding passage or movement of a music piece. Centered around seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member in her deaf family of four, CODA mainly adopts the literal former definition, and most will struggle to grasp the significance of the latter. Look at the film’s underlying structure, however, and the tenor sharpens: this is predominantly a coming-of-age narrative, where identities will be challenged, shed, and reasserted; where one chapter concludes, another beckons on the cusp.

The Rossi family ‌— consisting of cheerfully grizzled Frank, vibrantly combative Jackie, their perpetually grouchy son Leo, and introverted Ruby ‌— eke out a living through fishing; at three every morning, they head out to sea on their trawler, where they snag and later sell the day’s catch. On the Gloucester docks, conniving middlemen seek to exploit the fishermen, and the family’s disability compounds their vulnerability. Ruby, their de facto interpreter, keeps the family business afloat, but at the cost of taunts and hostility from her school’s bullies. True to its figurative connotation, CODA installs in her a belatedly realized dream to sing and study music; at sea, she belts out a hearty rendition of Etta James’ “Something’s Got A Hold On Me,” but during choir practice with the eccentric Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), words fail her. With her whole life spent in the shadow of her tight-knit clan, Ruby labors to develop a unique identity beyond the economic hardships befalling them and the reductive “CODA” affixed to her name. “Do you ever wish I was deaf?” she asks her mother. Without promise of hearing, privation suddenly means so much less.

Straddling a fine line between clichés of rom-com formulae and the more attuned notes of personal storytelling, CODA intelligently and sensitively uses the former’s saccharine and familiar beats to its advantage; by enforcing some predictability in narrative, Heder accentuates her characters’ lives with honesty and compassion. In matters of representation, deaf actors were cast for deaf roles, as was not the case with Éric Lartigau’s 2014 La Famille Bélier, of which CODA is a remake. Avoiding stereotypes of them at their expense and utilizing American Sign Language throughout their daily conversations, the film realizes its egalitarian and empowering portrayal of the deaf community without slipping into honeyed condescension.

More crucially, the exaggerated designs of lesser plot-symmetrical titles that necessitate the resolution of every single loose end are rejected in spite of the Rossis’ happy ending. In particular, Heder veers between broad caricatural strokes (effeminate, pretentious, yet gentle) and a certain naturalism in characterizing Mr. V, Ruby’s mentor and inspiration. With him, the times are both tender and tempestuous, without any sweeping dramatic flourish to magically resolve all woes. “The stars here, they don’t look as good as they do on the water”: CODA affirms the imperfect negotiations of identity, and identifies the perfection found in negotiation. For her audition into music college, Ruby performs Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” “I’ve looked at life from both sides now […] / I really don’t know life at all”; crowd-pleasing but no less compelling, CODA indeed concludes with a spectacular coda.

You can watch Siân Heder’s CODA in theaters or stream in on Apple TV+ beginning on August 13.

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.