As one of the younger guns in the realms of major streaming services, Apple TV hasn’t quite yet managed to nab the kind of prestigious, awards-season favourite ‘Original’ that Netflix and Amazon seem to be able to just about conjure a few times a year. Wolfwalkers certainly deserved to be last year but was inevitably (and wrongly) swamped come awards season by a Pixar one-two punch, so it now falls to Sian Heder’s CODA to bring the streamer that kind of attention, and I wouldn’t bet against it doing just that. Here is an uncomplicated but distinctive feelgood dramedy – based on a modestly received French comedy called La Famille Belier – balancing crowdpleasing romance, quirky families, and social issues that audiences are bound to fall in love with.
CODA stands for ‘Child Of Deaf Adults’, a role taken by the 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of an otherwise entirely Deaf family who is looking uncertainly at her future as the end of her school life approaches. She spends her early mornings with her dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on the family fishing boat – vital to operations as the only crew member who can hear calls from fellow vessels – before heading off to school, where she’s frequently exhausted and harassed over her unglamorous job and Deaf parents.
It looks like the fishing life is Ruby’s only option, until she joins the school choir to get closer to her crush Miles (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and proves herself a superb singer, good enough to join a prestigious music school, a possibility that unnerves the Rossi clan, especially Ruby’s mum Jackie (Marlee Matlin). There’s very little in this plot that will surprise you, from the Dead Poets Society-lite eccentric teacher that encourages Ruby’s talent to the peaks and valleys of her relationship with Miles. CODA can definitely at times feel too much like a typical Sundance Indie Movie, particularly when it deals with Ruby’s parents who are constantly rude and horny in a way that feels datedly zany.
Keeping things just fresh enough, though, is Heder’s unfaltering commitment to authentically portraying the Deaf experience. While there’s nothing as immersive here as in, say, Sound of Metal, having Ruby’s family played by actually Deaf actors makes their home feel so much more alive. You never feel like you’re getting les out of the script when the words aren’t being directly spoken, and Heder and her cast find moving ways to express feelings through Sign Language that can’t be vocalised, Deaf or not.
It’s an incredibly difficult role that the young lead Jones has been handed, having to Sign, sing, and convincingly work a fishing boat, but she makes a superb go of it, while Kotsur and Matlin are hugely compelling in support. A profound frustration has calcified over a lot of these characters’ lives, and the cast do a great job of being subtly weighed down by these disappointments and transcending them as Ruby’s musical dreams become closer to a reality.
Her climactic performances really swing for the emotional fences, and when they land, they make all of CODA’s problems simply disappear. A duet with Miles at a school concert will have your heart soaring, while Frank gently touching Ruby’s throat in order to ‘hear’ her better through the vibrations left the entire audience in floods of tears, a transcendent moment of support and understanding. Suddenly, the predictable story and mostly unengaging subplot about setting up a fisherman’s cooperative don’t matter, and you’re with Ruby as her world opens up to new possibilities and thrills. Add to this a genuinely meaningful step forward in terms of mainstream cinematic representation of disability, and you have both a heartwarming family trip to the movies and the first genuine awards contender of the year.