Apple TV + hasn’t exactly established itself as the go-to place for new movies; Ted Lasso is probably the biggest draw to date. But they certainly made a splash paying $25 million at Sundance for CODA, writer and director Sian Heder’s slight but utterly charming film about a fishing family living with deafness. CODA is an upbeat, crowd-pleasing film that should win hearts and minds, as well as awards; the title comes not just from the musical term, but the acronym Child of Deaf Adults.
The big draw here is Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God, and with a focus on deafness, music, education and remote locations, CODA sometimes feels like a sequel to that film; it’s not, and is based on a French film called La Famille Bélier. Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old, and has been standing up for those with deafness since her breakthrough role. She plays Jackie Rossi, wife of Gloucester, Massachusetts fisherman Frank (Troy Kotsur) and son Leo (Daniel Durant). All of them are hearing impaired, but her daughter Ruby (Emilia Jones) is not, and has aspirations to sing. Her eccentric teacher Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her talent, but Ruby is needed on the family boat; can she satisfy their needs as well as pursue her own dream?
If the synopsis sounds like a twee Glee holiday special, that’s not the way Heder’s film feels at all. Firstly, the portrait of the economic hardship of the fishing industry is well-worked and convincing, particularly the way that the local businesses suffer financially from interference from on high. Secondly, as with Children of a Lesser God, deafness is explored as a factor that both creates bonds and divisions between family members; Jackie admits that she was disappointed to find out that her daughter could hear, and Ruby feels sidelined by not being like the rest of her family, but each of them has a journey to take. Heder sticks to her unconventional guns by daringly choosing to elide the sound when Ruby’s family attend her big vocal performance; we see things from the POV of a united family unit who face regular alienation from societal norms, and have found their own idiosyncratic work-around.
With a sunny sea-side background and a great choice of music, from topper Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now to the rousing opener, Etta James’ Good Feeling, Coda is a very satisfying package; it makes salient points about ambition, family ties and today’s cut-throat economic world. Matlin and Kotsur are a delight to watch together as Ruby’s cantankerous parents; they’re introduced bickering over who has given who a nasty case of jock-itch. Not a disease-of-the week tv movie or a sentimental romp, this is a delicate, wholesome movie that doesn’t hold back on the big finale; for all concerned, it’s one of these happy films that deals with an important subject with admirable deftness, and is a hearty recommend.
Thanks to Apple Original Films for Access to CODA, out now on Apple TV+