Siân Heder’s debut feature “Tallulah” premiered at Sundance in 2016. The writer-director returned to the festival this year with the opening-night film “Coda,” a touching and joyous family drama about a teenager named Ruby (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of a deaf family — CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults.
Based on the 2014 French comedy-drama “La Famille Bélier” and starring Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin as Ruby’s mother Jackie, the film takes a heartwarming look at the obstacles facing deaf people in a hearing world plus it’s a coming-of-age drama that highlights the pains of high school we all went through (bullying, crushes, and lunchroom melodrama).
The film is the antithesis of what you’d expect, filled with so much music and singing that one might wonder whether Heder is actually John Carney expanding his filmography that includes “Once,” “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street.” Filled with many uplifting moments, “Coda” is a true gem with a perfect balance of emotions that range from watery-eyed moments to laugh out loud comedy. The funniest moments are courtesy of Troy Kotsur (“The Mandalorian”) as Ruby’s loveable father Frank.
Kostur, who grew up as the only deaf member of his family, can command a scene with just his facial expressions. There’s plenty of embarrassing dad moments for Ruby especially the scene where her parents begin having loud sex while she has a high school friend and crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) over to practice for choir. He also likes to pick up Ruby from school while blaring gangsta rap — he may be deaf, but he can still feel the bass.
The cast also includes Daniel Durant as Ruby’s older brother Leo who is constantly on Tinder (there’s a funny scene that involves using the dating app at the dinner table). Like Matlin and Kotsur, Durant is also deaf and multi-talented. His recent accomplishments include signing his way to Broadway as Moritz in “Spring Awakening.” Leo may not stand out as much as the other characters, but he plays a vital role in getting his family to accept the fact that Ruby can’t stay at home forever. Leo is more than ready to take control of the family’s fishing business, but his parents rely too much on Ruby to help them navigate the hearing world.
Ruby’s family comes from a long line of fishermen. When she’s not in high school, the teenager is helping her father and brother bring in the day’s catch, serving as interpreter-negotiator when they go to market. But Ruby’s love is singing, which she does often in the boat. She’s really good but never considered joining the choir until she met her crush Miles who signs up for the class. Walsh-Peelo, who played Cosmo in “Sing Street,” once again whips out his guitar providing smooth vocals alongside Jones, the two have great chemistry.
Stealing just about every scene he’s in, Mexican actor-comedian Eugenio Derbez delivers his best performance yet as high school choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos — Mr. V to the students who can’t roll their R’s — who believes that Ruby is such a talented singer that he’s willing to give up his spare time to work with her to prepare for an audition into the Berklee College of Music. Ruby never considered going to college, imaging she would always be home helping out with the fishing business, but realizes that she must chase after her dream and begin living her own life.
Heder and Jones learned ASL for the film. Their commitment to authenticity makes “Coda” a genuine look at not only the struggles faced by the deaf community but more so their accomplishments. Jones is first-rate as the teenager caught between obligation and independence. It’s great seeing Marlee Matlin back on screen, the actress whose groundbreaking debut in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God,” is great as the family’s sexy matriarch who must let go of her daughter and let her lead her own life. She’s selfish and doesn’t understand why Ruby would pursue a singing career since the rest of the family is deaf.
Heder’s sophomore film delivers plenty of laughs, wonderful singing, and emotional moments, especially during the film’s final chapter. There is a brilliant scene where the family attends Ruby’s recital. Halfway through her performance, Heder cuts the audio to give you the deaf family’s perspective. Since they can’t hear their daughter, they gauge her performance by looking around the silent auditorium to study the crowd’s reaction. It’s eye-opening brilliant. Then there’s the scene where Franks asks Ruby to sing for him, placing his hands on her neck to feel the vibrations. Like the entire film, that scene is irresistible.