“CODA” is a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser, a rousing coming of age story about a child of deaf adults — that’s where the title comes from — and her journey to find her own voice.
A trio of fine performances anchor this heartening, joyous story, the breakout success of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was purchased by Apple TV+ for a record-setting $25 million. With any luck, its accolades will continue to roll in through awards season, where it deserves to be a major contender.
Emilia Jones gives a breakout performance as Ruby Rossi, the hearing daughter of deaf parents whose older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf. They’re a family of fishermen and Ruby works with her brother and her father, Frank (standout Troy Kotsur), on their weathered boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Back on shore, their catch is given short shrift by the local market, and it’s often up to Ruby to act as middleman to try to negotiate better rates.
Meanwhile, Ruby has a secret passion: singing. She joins her high school choir where her teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez, a superstar in his native Mexico) immediately spots her potential. He positions her for a duet in the yearly recital opposite the classmate she has eyes for, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and assigns them the classic Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell love song, “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
At home, Ruby’s mother Jackie (Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin) pooh-poohs Ruby’s singing, writing it off as teenage rebellion and telling her she needs to focus on helping out with the family business. But Bernardo encourages her, telling her she has the goods to go to the Berklee College of Music, if she can find the time to practice and put in the proper work. He offers to tutor her at his home if she can make the commitment.
This sets up a classic push-pull for Ruby, as she’s torn between two worlds, hers and her family’s, the hearing and the deaf.
Writer-director Sian Heder, who adapted the story from 2014’s “La Famille Bélier,” tells the story in a refreshingly straightforward manner. This is mainstream, up-the-middle filmmaking, with recognizable beats and a familiar story structure. That’s not a knock: that familiarity allows the story to unfold in a natural way, and for the actors to breathe life into their characters. And boy, do they ever.
Jones, who at 19 has been kicking around on screen for a decade (in 2011, she played the small role of English Girl in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”), is a full-on star in the lead role, able to play confident, frustrated, vulnerable, tough and headstrong. She’s a knockout.
As Ruby’s father, Kotsur leaves a lasting impression, his effusive, expressive ASL signing able to render humor, heart and raunchiness in equal measure. And Derbez, whose attempts at Stateside breakthroughs (including “How to Be a Latin Lover” and the “Overboard” remake) have been so-so, finds the center in his colorful choir teacher, a role that could have been easily overplayed but in his hands is pitched just right.
It all builds to a stirring climax, with a musical performance from Jones that rivals Emma Stone’s dramatic apex in “La La Land.” “CODA” is sweet, heartfelt, eye-opening and uplifting. It’s a big hug of a movie, and we could all use a hug right now.
Rated PG-13: for strong sexual content and language, and drug use
Running time: 112 minutes
On Apple TV+ Friday, in theaters Aug. 20