Released 2021. Director: Sian Heder
RUBY IS A CODA - CHILD OF DEAF ADULTS. She’s the only person in her family of four – parents Frank and Jackie and older brother Leo – who is able to hear. The hearing-impaired household is by no means ‘quiet’ with their use of sign language. Family banter can be fast and furious when everyone signs at once. Dad also has a habit of playing his car stereo extremely loud to appreciate the thumping bass of his favourite rap songs, a source of embarrassment when he picks up Ruby after school.
CODA is a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Belier. Keeping most of the elements from the original, Sian Heder reaches deeper into the heart of the story and her adaptation is a superior improvement. Heder’s direction captures the emotions in ways that are often funny and also touching, with wonderful performances from characters who are affectionately developed to illustrate their story of family quirks, youthful restlessness and the push-pull bond between children and their parents.
Unlike other teenagers, Ruby’s day starts when her alarm goes off at 3 a.m. She works with dad and Leo on their fishing trawler, hauling in their catch to the dock before rushing off to school, smelling of brine and often falling asleep in class. Ruby admits she’s not good at school, but she has a hidden talent. The girl can sing, if you could coax it out of her before fear of humiliation and singing in public chokes her confidence.
Luckily for Ruby, her choir instructor, the mercurial and hard-to-please Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), sees Ruby’s potential and pushes her to apply for a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music. Her family, for obvious reasons, never realised one of their own could carry a tune. Feeling somewhat perplexed at Ruby’s interest in singing, her parents couldn’t get their heads around why Ruby would want to pursue an activity they could not appreciate. Out of bafflement and possibly a little bit of hurt and unaware of the insensitivity of the question, Jackie asks Ruby “If I was blind, would you want to paint?”
Therein lies Ruby’s predicament. She has a gift she’s unable to share with the people closest to her. To hone and develop her talent, Ruby will need to leave her family. A dream come true for someone else in her position, but for Ruby it means abandoning her loved ones. Ruby is the family’s interpreter, a crucial communication link with practically everyone outside the family. The family’s fishing business is facing bad times and Ruby’s absence will do nothing to improve the situation. If she stays, she risks losing the opportunity to find her own voice, in more ways than one.
A teenage girl in daggy clothes who couldn’t be “cool” if she tried, apologising for her “gross” house when friends come over, tolerating the snickering and mocking at her family, Ruby the outsider at school is also becoming an outsider at home because she’s different in a significant way.
As Ruby approaches a crossroads in life, domestic frustrations become more intense as the sense of others impinge on self. To Sian Heder’s credit, CODA never once strains to make a point. Her direction skilfully avoids clichéd pitfalls and blends the dramatic and comedic elements into an engaging crowd-pleaser.
Emilia Jones leaves a strong impression as Ruby and capably takes the audience on a personal journey with her character. Besides shining a spotlight on young talents Jones and Daniel Durant as Leo, CODA also brings a couple of hearing-impaired veteran actors Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin back to the forefront of mainstream attention.
One of the stand-out scenes features mum and dad among the audience at the school concert. Ruby is singing a duet on stage and her parents are visibly feeling out of place being unable to respond. In their silent world, they watch the rapt reaction of the audience, the smiles and even a tear or two, and they begin to appreciate the gift Ruby possesses which is shared with others but not them.
How parents relate to their children, or more aptly, what they don’t "get" with their children, is eloquently expressed. How the two sides give each other a chance to "hear" them out is equally poignant. Frank hears with his fingers on Ruby’s neck as she sings for him is a moment with the appearance of a quiver but the impact of a tremor.
A breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival acquired for a record sum for streaming distribution, CODA is a modest movie with a broad appeal that will put a song in your heart.
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