Depending on the size of a film festival, nothing can be more crucial than the flow of the films. For some festivals, when there aren’t overlapping films the flow is crucial. Once you get to the size of Sundance, it’s less about the flow but more about the opening film and the statement that it gives us. With Sian Heder’s CODA, that opening message is a beautiful bear hug that makes you cry after holding it in for so long.
First, the title of the film stands for Child of Deaf Adults. In CODA, that child is Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), both her parents and brother are deaf, but she is of hearing. Her father Frank (Troy Katsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) fish early in the morning and end just in time for Ruby to go to her final year of high school. It’s clear that she’s not fully invested or has all her energy dealing with waking up early to go fishing as she falls asleep in the first class we see her take. Ruby puts her family first since nobody in their town knows ASL and while her older brother Leo can lip-read, it’s still possible he’ll miss something.
One day while signing up for a club at school, Ruby joins the choir, seemingly to both follow her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from Sing Street and I need to say, it took me too long to realize it was Ferdia and I’m ashamed) but also her passion of loving to sing. I feel like it’s a universal thing to sing around the house, as we wash dishes, as we clean our room, as we shower – and sometimes, our parents encourage us to sing louder or not to sing at all. So, Ruby goes into this audition unaware of her own talents – and there is so much talent. Emilia Jones can really sing, and when she finally sings for her choirmaster Bernardo Villalabos (the always funny Eugenio Derbez), it was the first of many times I cried. Before Ruby sings, we hear everyone else sing – and everyone is varying degrees of talent, but all of them had such pretty voices. This was not my experience in my choir in high school. That’s why I’m a writer and not a singer, but I digress. Once Mr. V (which is what Bernardo tells his student to call him when asking if his students are able to properly roll their R’s (the subtitles for the scene had Berrrrnardo as he rolled it)) starts to believe in Ruby arguably more than her own family at first, Ruby starts to find herself outside of her relationship to her parents. And it’s a beautiful journey to witness.
Her family is lovely and hilarious. Her parents are so in love and still obsessed with one another, in a world overrun by divorce – it is a joy when you see true love shown in this aspect. During dinner, they together as a family, swipe through Leo’s phone for Tinder. But since Ruby is the only one who isn’t deaf, there sometimes is a disconnect in their experiences. Her mother Jackie (Academy Award Winner Marlee Matlin) tells her daughter one day in an emotional heart-to-heart that she was worried that they would have trouble connecting. But that’s an experience that is common between those hard of hearing, or with hearing. Fear that maybe we won’t have a better relationship with our children than the ones we have with our parents. The film is based on such pure genuine worldwide sentiments that I found myself trying to stop myself from crying during the last hour of the film.
Siân Heder’s film is beautiful, with the core of the story being about being true to ourselves and trying to move away from being the person our family depends on every day. CODA really shows us how utterly exhausting it can be, to always put on a brave face and put your family first before yourself, and your happiness. In the moments when she’s singing with Mr. V or hanging out with Miles, it’s like she’s floating away. There are moments in which there is no sound, or when she signs, and we don’t see the translation, but we understand perfectly. It’s these moments that words and noises can be barriers, but emotions are a universal language.
Every person in this film has a moment to shine, and they shine so brightly. I could live with this family and smile, laugh and feel loved. That’s what CODA does best, reminds us of being loved and the sacrifices we’d do when we love. How we can give so much of ourselves, but we must remember to find ourselves and hold onto ourselves as hard as we can. CODA isn’t just a crowdpleaser or a tearjerker, it’s so much more than that. Between the great visuals, or the incredible use of songs from Bowie to Marvin Gaye. Bernardo says there are so many pretty voices with nothing to say, but Heder’s film is filled with both pretty voices and silence – and she says so much in the silence than most films can.