Directed by Sian Heder
Review written by Sandi Johnson
I didn’t know what to expect from “Coda”; the description in the Sundance program was pretty minimalist. I was in a writers group that Sian Heder had been in long ago, though (we kind of passed in the night: she was coming less as her career took off just as I was starting with the group), and from that barely-there connection, I’ve been invested in her and her career and have loved her past work, so I couldn’t miss this film.
From the very first moment of the movie, a teenage girl, Ruby, singing along to Etta James’ “Something’s Got a Hold On Me” as she works on her family’s fishing boat, the one word that is unstoppably demanding to be said is JOY.
I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life for an answer, a next step, to “Singing in the Rain” (and many people have tried and not quite hit the mark) – THIS IS IT, in a way that no one could have ever expected. There’s really only one featured singer in this production, Emilia Jones, who has the most lovely voice (her choirmate Miles, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, is equally strong in the moments he joins her in a duet), but Sian uses both the camera and the very expressive full body signing as dancing and the overall effect is just exuberance… special props to the DP, Paula Huidobro, whose shooting is a dance, and the music producer, Nick Baxter – the choices of songs amplify the joy and intensity of the story to amazing effect.
The movie tells the story of a deaf family, mom (Marlee Matlin), Dad (Troy Kotsur), and big brother (Daniel Durant), with a hearing little sister Ruby (Emilia Jones); children of deaf parents are knows as Codas in the deaf community, thus the title. Emilia Jones is radiant, jumping off the screen in a role for the ages that demanded so much from her, from learning how to sign (and not just learning how to sign, but how to talk, EMOTE, and sign all at once, all of which she did beautifully), to learning how to run a fishing boat, to embodying the emotional rollercoaster Ruby is on. I can’t wait to see everything else she does. It is also such a joy to see Marlee Matlin owning the screen again in a leading role. She gives the mother such levels of complexity, her face expressing 15 emotions at once as she accuses her daughter of pursuing singing just to spite her (“If I was blind, would you want to paint?” she asks), and then confessing that she prayed for her daughter to be deaf because she feared failing her if she were hearing. Troy Kotsur is in some ways the heart of the film, the bawdy dad who embarrasses his daughter with how much he still desires his wife and how raunchy he is in his day-to-day, sometimes just to goad her. Beneath his earthy surface vulgarity, though, he watches, listens despite not being able to hear words, and really understands just how hard it is to be the only hearing translator for a deaf family. Daniel, who plays Ruby’s big brother, is also amazing in his expletive-ridden exchanges with Ruby, his fury at not being able to be enough for his family as he is, and his need to protect his little sister. In addition, Eugenio Derbez is such a delight as Ruby’s music teacher, deMANding that she live up to her potential. The scene where he insists on the most from Ruby and snaps her back into excelling is a triumph for Sian and both Eugenio and Ruby, a true classic turn-of-events scene where you really see her change and come into her own.
Coda is the classic story of a child caught between their dreams and the needs of their family, but there are so many more layers than that. It really does evoke laughter and tears, both often and throughout.
This is the first and only film I’ve seen so far, but I hope it wins all of the awards. I can only aspire to someday making a film as meaningful and impactful as Sian’s, and honestly, I’m off to research signing classes tomorrow. There’s an age-old Broadway saying that I’m probably mangling, but the gist is this – when talking isn’t enough to express your emotions, you sing. When singing isn’t enough, you dance. Sian’s film goes one step further to add, when dancing isn’t enough, you sign.