A bona fide Sundance sensation – and if that phrase has you rolling your eyes already, dear reader, then this film is probably not for you – this mildly spunky, extremely earnest coming-of-age dramedy by Siân Heder (Tallulah, 2016) seems to have tugged all the right heartstrings at its virtual premiere earlier this year.
After bagging the festival's biggest prizes (namely, the US Grand Jury Prize, the US Dramatic Audience Award and a Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award, plus Best Director for Heder), CODA was seized upon by potential distributors, selling for a Sundance record-breaking price in the ensuing bidding war.
Certainly, it embodies the kind of quirky but humanistic indie fare with which the festival, for better or, depending on who you ask, for worse, has become synonymous – so come prepared to be ever so gently uplifted.
Adapted from the 2014 French crowd-pleaser La Famille Bélier, CODA centres on tomboyish 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) as she approaches a crossroads: she must decide whether to stick with the family fishing business in her salt-kissed hometown of Gloucester, Massachusetts, or to pursue her love of singing – long-standing, but nurtured for the first time by a zealous choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) – and angle for a scholarship to a music college in Boston.
Complicating her decision is the fact that she's the only member of the tight-knit, blue-collar Rossi clan with the ability to hear (hence the film's title, an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults). More than just another set of hands on deck, Ruby is the de facto conduit between them – mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) – and the auditory realm: she's the family ears, as it were.
From the docks to the doctor's office, Ruby is there, bridging the gap between ASL, her own mother tongue, and spoken English, anxious to keep her folks in the loop.
But they can't share in her honeyed singing voice – which she's always been too shy to road-test anywhere but early mornings out at sea anyway, cranking Etta James as she slings fish into buckets alongside Frank and Leo. Her parents initially dismiss her newly expressed passion as a form of youthful rebellion: "If I was blind, would you want to paint?" quips Jackie.
It's the film's considered, full-bodied engagement with Deaf culture that distinguishes and enlivens what is ultimately a very familiar, and aesthetically generic, story of a teenager on the cusp of self-knowledge, replete with mentor in the Dead Poets Society mould and floppy-haired crush (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, whose character Miles is admittedly more buttoned-up than the classic high school hunk type).
The fact that the Rossis, barring Jones's Ruby, are played by Deaf actors is key to the film's integrity – and certainly a more meaningful amendment to the French original (in which the equivalent roles were played by hearing actors) than the relocation of the action from a dairy farm to a New England port city familiar to the writer-director.
From Ruby's embarrassment at having to discuss her parents' (booming) sex life with their doctor, to the cutting of the sound in the climactic school concert scene, attuning the viewer to the Deaf experience, Heder's adaptation is more faithful than some of the commentary would imply: the changes made are largely superficial, a matter of switching up the subplots and adjusting the story's seasoning for the American palette, with the end result a good deal less farcical, less cheesy, than La Famille Bélier – and better for it.
Heder wisely devotes a good chunk of screen time to exploring the Rossi family dynamic, which feels every inch as comfy and lived-in as papa Frank's battered Boston Red Sox cap in the amply capable hands of her performers. (Oscar-winning hands, in Matlin's case – she's still the only Deaf Oscar winner since picking one up for her screen debut, aged just 21, in Randa Haines's 1986 film Children of a Lesser God.)
Unbeknownst to any non-ASL proficient bystanders, who don't have the benefit of the film's subtitles, the Rossis' conversations are often animated by playfully crude terminology.
Clocking off work, Ruby farewells her brother with a cheery "Bye, shit-face". She smiles angelically and holds her hands to her cheeks, moving them in a circular motion, evoking a shit-based moisturising routine. "Bye, twat-waffle," he counters, making a suggestively pelvic triangle with his thumbs and forefingers before dissolving it with an expressive wave of his arm.
They swear like, well, sailors – and the inherent physicality of sign language imbues the trash talk so often dished by onscreen siblings with extra flair.
But there are points at which the ribaldry transcends the need for translation – as when Frank, under the mistaken impression that Miles is Ruby's beau rather than her assigned duet partner, subjects the pair – one bemused, the other mortified – to a vividly mimetic monologue about safe sex. "Put a helmet on that soldier!" signs the larger-than-life sea dog, Kotsur channelling Matthew McConaughey at his wild-eyed best, and clearly relishing the delivery.
While mom and dad's surprising tendency towards fart jokes, pot smoke, and effusive sex-positivity can be traced back to the film's French forebear, they also bear the imprint of Heder's years writing for Orange Is the New Black.
It makes for broader comedy than one might expect from a film otherwise keyed into a lightly sweetened naturalism. If only the depiction of Ruby as a young woman caught between two cultures, learning to vocalise her own desires with the same confidence she has in signing, didn't rely on quite so many wholesome, Glee-style sequences.