The Open-Hearted ‘CODA’ Earns Every Emotion

It takes a special kind of movie to make you cry three separate times in its final act.

In our hostile and cynical world, films that make you shed that many tears can inspire sneers or eye rolls. Critics often ding tearjerkers for being sappy and overly sentimental. It’s a fair criticism; some movies telegraph their emotional manipulation before the credits even roll. You might wipe at your eyes, but afterward, you likely won’t feel good, or anything else.

Blessedly, CODA is a lovely exception, earning every feeling, emotion, and, yes, tear. 

The film, written and directed by Sian Heder, follows the Rossis, a fishing family from Massachusetts. Frank (Troy Kotsur), Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and Leo (Daniel Durant) are culturally Deaf. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing family member (or CODA, hence the title). She interprets on their behalf, keeping them connected to the town and supporting them on the fishing boat. She mostly keeps to herself until she impulsively joins a choir group to get closer to her crush. Ruby discovers a gift for singing and begins pursuing it with help from her choir instructor. Her newfound passion soon conflicts with her commitments to her family and its burgeoning fishing business. 

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Heder doesn’t pretend that CODA’s story and conclusion aren’t straightforward or unpredictable. Anyone familiar with a coming-of-age film with a supportive family knows where Ruby’s story will end. What Heder primarily focuses on – and what makes her film so heartfelt and essential – is its lived-in specificity. The Rossis feel like a small-town family that any teenage girl would love and be embarrassed by, because of Frank and Jackie’s shameless attraction and Leo’s frustrations at being overlooked. Their financial anxieties – the precarious state of their livelihood, the prohibitive costs of attending a top-tier musical college – are tangible. The circumstances they find themselves in, both comical and precarious, are relatable.

Of course, what makes the Rossi family unique is their deafness, especially in a mainstream cultural context. (Marlee Matlin is the only Deaf actor to win an Oscar, as of this writing.) As someone not part of the deaf community, I cannot speak to CODA’s accuracy in portraying the experiences. However, the film works to balance their realities as a deaf family with other aspects of their personalities. It also handles the trickier task of not having Ruby blame her family’s deafness on her inability to pursue music fully. At most, she shares how her insecurities from her voice stem from how little she used it growing up (something I had never considered before) or how she deliberately shielded herself from intolerance. You can sense her frustration, but it doesn’t venture towards resentment or shame. (You will probably get frustrated with Ruby’s refusal to communicate her challenges balancing music and work.)

Emilia Jones and Eugenio Derbez in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

The love that Ruby and her family share is why CODA’s final act is such a gut-punch (any why I cried three times). Here, the careful character work and the silly and somewhat melodramatic moments pay off splendidly as the family joins together in a new way, even though they are separated by how they perceive it. They bridge the gap that medicine, finances, and teenage rebellion can’t cross because of how much they care for and value each other. Even though Frank, Jackie, and Leo can’t hear Ruby’s voice and rely on the visual reaction of others in the audience to clue them in, you know they feel the intention behind each word. That is the source of CODA’s walloping emotional power.

So much of CODA’s success comes from the Rossis themselves that I would be remiss not to praise the cast. With much of this year’s turbulent awards season in the rearview mirror, CODA didn’t land nominations for Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin. Jones easily skips past all the pitfalls that would’ve made Ruby insufferable. Matlin looks to be having a wonderful time, radiating maternal warmth and mischief as Jackie. 

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in “CODA,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

If CODA could only have one acting nominee, you won’t find one better than Troy Kotsur, who is well-poised and well-deserved to follow in Matlin’s footsteps. He is responsible for two of the film’s three tearjerking moments, tapping into the pride of seeing a child realize their potential with such open-hearted clarity and intimacy it’s overwhelming to behold. You wouldn’t necessarily expect those moments from Frank. Seeing him gently hold Ruby’s throat as she sings, literally feeling the words he cannot hear, any other option is inconceivable. It is, without question, one of the best performances of 2021 I’ve seen.

There’s no question of CODA’s importance from a representation standpoint. The deaf community has long deserved to have their stories seen on a broader scale, and one can hope that films like this and last year’s Sound of Metal are turning the tide. On top of that, CODA shows how emotionally universal and impactful these, and all stories based on varying identities, can be when they’re honestly and unapologetically told.

Three separate crying fits aren’t far behind when a film does that.

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