Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi and Patrick Wachsberger Director: Sian Heder Screenplay: Sian Heder Cast: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth and Kevin Chapman Distributor: Apple+
Sometimes execution makes all the difference. “CODA” has a screenplay that, if ineptly handled, would have made for a mawkishly manipulative tearjerker. But Sian Herder, who wrote it, assembled a fine cast and directed them, one exception aside, with a sensitive touch, and the result is still a tearjerker, but one that’s affecting rather than cloying.
The basic plot, to be sure, is a compendium of clichés. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA, an acronym indicating the hearing child of deaf parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin); her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf. Ruby has been the resident interpreter for the family all her life, but now in high school, she’s feeling frustrated by their dependence on her.
The Rossis are fishermen in Gloucester, Massachusetts, irritated—like their fellows—by the low prices they’ve been getting for their catches, as well as by a government program to put monitors on their boats. Leo comes up with a scheme for the fishermen to band together to sell their combined catch directly to buyers, bypassing the better-off middlemen, and his parents agree to go along with the idea. But Ruby will be needed to interpret in negotiations, and also to accompany Frank and Leo while on the family’s boat.
Ruby, however, has developed other interests. Infatuated with her classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), she impulsively joins choir to be near him, since it’s one of his passions. Initially too nervous even to sing in an audition, she gradually loosens up, and eccentric music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) is so impressed that he pairs her with Miles for a duet in the upcoming school concert, and also recommends that she consider applying the Berklee, the music school in Boston he’d graduated from. He’ll even recommend her for a scholarship there.
It’s easy to see the conflicts that are bound to arise. Ruby’s commitment to rehearsals with Bernardo are threatened by her family’s need for her to help them. And when Frank and Jackie find out that she might want to leave Gloucester for college in Boston, they’re taken aback not only because the family livelihood will be threatened, but because it will be in the service of a form of art they can neither hear nor appreciate.
The family dynamic is further complicated by Leo: he wants Ruby to go off to school, thinking that his parents have always considered her more important and wanting to prove his worth, though there’s also a more positive side to his view, since he believes his sister should have the opportunity to express her talent, especially after he connects with a hearing girlfriend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth).
Of course, there’s another component, one of the teen romance variety, as Ruby and Miles get close as a result of their work together; they even go swimming in a nearby lake, daring each other to dive into the water off the surrounding cliffs. But here too an obstacle rears up, when Miles stumbles into an embarrassing moment in the Rossi home and tells another student about it, prompting Ruby—and, by extension, her family to be ridiculed. Will she find it in her heart to forgive him?
It’s not difficult to predict how the various problems will work out for the best, but Heder works through them with considerable agility, ending up at a satisfying finale at the Berklee admissions audition, where the major characters all have roles to play.
It helps immeasurably that the cast is so fine. Jones is ingratiating while not becoming grating in the more dramatic moments, and Walsh-Peelo disarmingly likable as the handsome hunk she falls for. But it’s the three other Rossis who keep things from getting maudlin, creating a portrait of a deaf family that, in its warm rowdiness, seems grounded in reality. Matlin’s ability to be both affectionate and tough is well-known; the surprise is Kotsur’s matching her beat for beat, making Frank a gruff, funny guy who’s also sensitive and caring. Both have one-on-ones with Jones late in the film that are touchingly genuine, like carefully constructed cadenzas. Durant is no less skillful, capturing Leo’s conflicted feelings beautifully.
The wild card in the deck is Derbez, who brings his usual extravagance to Bernardo. It’s a performance that’s hardly subtle, but somehow the over-the-top ebullience spices up the mix rather than overwhelming it. The craft contributions are far more understated, but Paula Huidobro’s cinematography and Diane Lederman’s production design create a convincing sense of place, and Geraud Brisson’s editing puts the pieces in place capably and lets the big moments bloom. Marius De Vries’s score dovetails nicely with the musical numbers.
“CODA” may strike you as typical of a well-meaning telefilm. And in fact it is—but a very good one.