There is a strange balancing act that CODA attempts for the first two-thirds at least. On one hand you have a movie which seemingly tells a straight and realistic story of a CODA (child of deaf family), as Emilia Jones’ Ruby bares the responsibility of being the only hearing child in a family where her brother and parents are deaf. The other side of this tale is a high school teen comedy, taking its cues from movies like Juno, where you have a quirky central character, an eccentric teenager, a outlandish best friend and a typical teen romance.
The family aspect is where the movie triumphs. This is a film which doesn’t play down to the audience but places you directly in the seat of what Ruby has to experience. From describing a very personal medical problem to the doctor for her parents, being the person waking the family so they can begin their fishing job or the embarrassment of deaf parents having very loud sex, it is all here and all covered in a realistic but funny way. You find yourself drawn to the family, loving their personality traits which come across so well without the need for spoken word.
It feels bold to display scenes where there is only sign and subtitle. Not silence, but purely the sound of the signing. These are captured best in scenes of frustration, anger or pure emotion. The Dad of the family, Frank, played by Troy Kotsur, gets the majority of these scenes and handles them perfectly, displaying more emotion in his sorrowful eyes or an angry signing than most actors could with a fiery monologue.
The jarring aspect to the movie is that for the first two-thirds at least, there is a high school story which could come straight out of so many other generic teen movies. The bullies, the quippy best-friend, the love interest and the bumpy road to their first romantic encounter (via the obligatory “misunderstanding”) and the worst high school trope of all, the eccentric teacher. There is something cheap and shallow about this plot compared to how well realised the family side to the film is. It is only when the two stories collide that you realise how invested in the family and their future you really are.
As the movie reaches its conclusion and the struggle between Ruby’s dreams and the reliance her family have on her begin to clash, there are a few key moments where you realise how invested you’ve become. Some are small, like a piece of singing between Ruby and her Dad, others are much bigger, such as a final audition with a twist. The one which has the most emotional impact is a scene where we “hear” a concert from the family’s perspective and what could have been very gimmicked becomes an impactful emotional moment. That is where CODA is most effective: when you realise that the first two-thirds have made you really care, not just about Ruby but the outcome of the whole family.
Overall, CODA takes a situation very rarely seen on-screen and shines a very realistic, sympathetic and funny spotlight upon it. The life of the deaf family is portrayed very well, with emotional moments punctured by great humour but you may find yourself frustrated with the high-school clichés. The final third makes-up for this however, as you realise how emotionally invested the movie has made you in the family’s story.
Rating – 4
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