Movie Review: Coda (2021)

TL;DR – Two parents, two kids. All of them deaf except the daughter who happens to have a gift for song. This is a story of the ties that bind a family together, and the challenges of youth being set free.

Review (warning: spoilers)

The 2021 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Coda benefits from timing. While the COVID pandemic has kept beating down our doors and the world continues to spiral in ways you would hope we would have learned from by now (e.g., the war in Ukraine), this film lights a much needed flame during a time of darkness.

In truth, Coda is a straight forward telling of Ruby (Emilia Jones) being torn between following her passion in singing and her love and loyalty to her parents and older brother, all of them deaf who run a family fishing business. The family is barely making ends meet, and the parents rely heavily on Ruby to be their interpreter and voice when interacting with people who don’t know sign-language.

As a coming-of-age tale, Ruby is genuine in taking care of her family but realises she cannot spend the rest of her life working on a fishing boat. On a deeper level, the story is also a “coming-of-age” for the parents who have to learn to let Ruby go and forge their own way to interact with others who they cannot hear. The one who sees the necessity for moving forward and letting go is the older brother who is frustrated that his parents rely more on Ruby than they do on him.

Coda contains the richness of a film comprised of many elements coming together in a fashion that lights up like fireworks in the night sky. The choreography is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and the scenes on the fishing boat along with Ruby’s cliff diving hideaway sanctuary are stunning. The casting is spot on with Ruby’s parents, Frank (Troy Kostur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), all being deaf in real life. Troy Kostur’s portrayal of Frank deservedly won best supporting actor at the Oscars, and Emilia Jones also learned sign language for nine months prior to the commencement of filming. Combine all this with a story whose greatest strength is in its simplicity and a soundtrack which includes singing performances by Emilia Jones and co-star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who plays Miles (Ruby’s love interest) and you have a film that will reignite your belief that things can get better.

While the subject of deafness is one of the themes, it is not the driving focus. The central theme is family, and the growing pains that are a part of life when you’re a teenager trying to find your own path. Deafness just happens to be an additional factor that is part of Ruby’s world, and one that she strives to navigate with sensitivity and integrity. She is not always successful, but neither are her parents or her older brother in navigating her “hearing” world. The fact that Jackie often discards Ruby’s pleas to live her own life and study singing, and Leo explodes with frustration at Ruby’s acts of martyrdom and, at one point, yelling at her that she is not part of the family, demonstrates that whether you’re deaf or not, we’re all human and can be easily blinded by our own driving emotions.

Some of the weaknesses of the film is derived in the high school scenes where female students mock Ruby for being part of a deaf family. While bullying is a real problem in teenage life, its depiction in Coda was stereotyped and not delved into with any degree of meaning. Its merely a mechanism used to create some sort of tension between Ruby and Miles.

It is with touching irony that Ruby is able to slowly communicate her dreams and desires to her family through song. The scene where Frank, Jackie and Leo attend Ruby’s school for a concert, and they watch her perform (not knowing if she is any good at singing) and can only react based on the expressions in the audience is the first step to their eyes opening that Ruby has actual talent. For example, when the crowd gives a standing ovation, they realise the school choir and Ruby are actually good.

When Ruby and Miles do a duet singing the song “You’re all I need to get by” by Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye, the camera moves through the audience and the expressions of those who can hear before focusing on Ruby’s family and the scene goes completely silent. It’s a powerful sequence demonstrating not only how much we all take hearing for granted, but also the mountain Ruby has to climb in order to communicate to her family.

When Frank asks Ruby to sing while they sit on the back of his pick-up truck and he places his hands on her neck so he can feel her vocal chords vibrate, you’ll need to be reaching for the tissues quick time.

And finally, when she auditions for Berklee College of Music and she sings “Both sides, now” by Joni Mitchell and sees her family has snuck in to watch, she signs the words as she sings them and you know her love for song is as strong as her love for her family.

Poignant, uplifting, and timely. Coda is a much needed breath of fresh air to escape the COVID pandemic confines and reminds us that we can all strive to be better in a loving and compassionate way.

8.5 out of 10