Festival hype can be a double-edge sword, particularly at the Sundance Film Festival where success doesn’t always translate to box office. For every Napoleon Dynamite or Get Out, there are films that are bought for big money that flop spectacularly (see Steve Coogan comedy Hamlet 2, or teen weepie Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl). CODA comes to cinemas and Apple TV+ with a similar spotlight, having been bought by the tech company for a festival-record $25m. Should they have kept the receipt?
British actor Emilia Jones (daughter of Aled) stars as Ruby, a teenager living in a Massachusetts coastal village splitting her time between school and her family’s fishing business. She is the only person in her family who isn’t Deaf, assuming the role of translator between her parents and an often-unwelcoming community. She discovers a passion for singing after signing up for the school choir, with her teacher (Eugenio Derbez) believing she has the talent to earn a scholarship to a prestigious music school. With relationship troubles and issues with the business, Ruby faces a difficult decision – follow her passion, or continue to help her family.
The bones of the film are very familiar. The MacGuffin plot device of the big college scholarship this been used countless times, as a misfit teen rebels against her family’s wishes to follow her dream. So much of the story is familiar, and yet in the way director Sian Heder (Tallulah) tells it, everything feels brand new. From the set design to the interactions, the family feels lived in, like the filmmakers simply switched on the cameras during a raucous dinner.
There are no archetypes here, just real, flawed people who are on their own journeys – Ruby’s parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) are madly in love and not great with boundaries, while brother Leo wants to strike out on his own and forms a text-based flirtation with Ruby’s friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth). No character feels written solely to serve another. Indeed, part of the lesson Ruby learns is that everyone has their own issues, and that leads to an intriguing clash of priorities as things progress.
This is pulled together by an incredibly funny and sincere script, that addresses the issues faced by the Deaf community without ever feeling preachy or patronising. Ruby’s family are not miserable or here to be an inspiration, they are simply people with a different perception of the world that isn’t always welcomed by hearing people. Particularly touching is their journey with Ruby’s passion – initially thought to be rebellion (“if I were blind would you take up painting?” Matlin asks at one point), the family works together to understand what makes each other happy. One scene in particular between father and daughter will bring tears from the toughest viewer.
19-year-old Jones gives Ruby a number of layers that make her fascinating to watch as she tries to manage her various responsibilities. Derbez can be a little over-the-top as the meditating, flouncing music teacher, but has some impactful moments around a piano as she pushes Ruby to be all she can be. Sing Street star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Miles, Ruby’s inevitable love interest and a young man from a very pressured household who shows her family difficulties can come in many forms.
Heartfelt and moving, CODA is a glorious comedy-drama that may not revolutionise the coming-of-age tale, but gets everything right as it tells an endearing story. We always encourage you to support your local cinema, but however you see it, it’s a film you’ll be glad you took a chance on.
CODA is in cinemas and on Apple TV+ from 13th August