In this unusual introduction into the Deaf world, Coda features a high school student, Ruby Rossi (British newcomer, Emilia Jones), who is in love with music. Trying out for the choir, she learns that a monumental decision will force her to leave her deaf parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). As the only hearing member of the family (CODA=Child of Deaf Adults), she is the communicator and interpreter for their struggling fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
How does a hearing child raised by deaf parents acquire speaking skills, and navigate school with students who do not understand what her life is like straddling two cultures: Deaf and hearing? That is the main theme of Coda, yet laced with humor and the usual teenage angst towards parents. . . and then some. A hilarious early scene has Ruby accompany her parents to the doctor’s office where she translates, via ASL, her father’s symptoms. He signs that his “nuts are on fire” and scrunches his hands into fists, his fingers like crabs clawing into his skin. The diagnosis? Ruby has to sign “jock itch.” The treatment? No sex for two weeks. Frank then asks his daughter to respond to the doctor for him: “But I can’t. Don’t you see how hot my wife is?” Ruby is mortified, but the physical comedy is even more uproarious because of the sign language, so visual the viewer doesn’t need to understand ASL.
Ruby also experiences her first possible chance at love with Miles (Ferdie Walsh-Peelo), the student assigned to sing a duet with her for the school concert. This subplot is rather weak and distracting.
Dreaming of a career as a singer, Ruby faces challenges practicing for an audition to win a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music. The choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), recognizes her talent, empathizes with her family’s needs, but nevertheless reminds Ruby of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Particularly noteworthy are moments of poignancy, particularly between Ruby and her mother and separately, with her father that are universal but also specific to Deaf culture. Because her parents will never experience the sound of Ruby’s exquisite voice, the scene between Frank and Ruby, where he tries to understand the timbre of her voice and resulting talent, is exceptionally touching.
A very heartwarming glimpse of Deaf culture, without becoming unforgivably saccharine, in no small part is due to the gifted actors, especially Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Troy Kotsur.
Note: Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant are deaf actors. The French movie upon which Coda is based–La Famille Bélier–controversially cast hearing actors for all major roles.