If you take Coda literally, in music, it refers to “the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure.” However, the film “CODA” implies a double entendre, referring to the “child of deaf adults.”

“CODA” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and opened the 2021 Phoenix Film Festival to a sold-out audience. Siân Heder’s moving and touching adaptation of Ėric Lartigau’s “La Familie Bélier” from 2014 features Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a talented yet shy student whose love of music fuels her soul. Her family, a line of anglers, is culturally deaf.

Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Ruby’s father, Frank, played by native Phoenician Troy Kotsur, struggles to provide for his family. Her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), helps to tend the ship, while Ruby also helps bring in the day’s catches and provides communication as needed. Mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin, who I was interested in discovering is a frequent collaborator with Kotsur) maintains the home and helps to keep the family in check.

Heder’s screenplay doesn’t skirt around the issue of a deaf family with a member who can hear. Instead, she charges head-on into the challenges the family experiences. There’s a very natural bond and ease of familial relations between the four members of the family. However, Ruby very much wants to be a teenager, as awkward as she is.

As Ruby struggles with fitting in at school because of the situation at home, Frank and Leo must deal with the pressures of being deep-sea fishermen. Heder worked very hard to create authenticity to their time at sea, with the cast learning to fish. The acting on display is first-rate.

Early in the film, Ruby must decide on an elective at school, and she is caught up with teenage lust over Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) while Gertie (Amy Forsyth) has the hots for Leo. Heder doesn’t spend much of the story’s time on a young adult-type love story, focusing on the family’s needs. Ruby, caught in the middle of being the family’s interpreter and her desires, decides to enroll in the school’s choir.

Thus enters Eugenio Derbez’ Bernardo Villalobos. Derbez continues to amaze and amuse this critic with his deadpan and often self-deprecating humor, and after a while, the spirit wears thin. He means well, and his character strikes a balance between chiding Ruby for having talent and not being willing to invest her time and energy into it and an understanding of her family’s need for an interpreter. “CODA” is sensitive to the needs of all the characters, and a genuine rapport is created between the audience and the film’s story.

Heder’s attention to the emotions of all the characters is omnipresent. As Leo fights to keep the proverbial sharks away from his fishing, the story emphasizes the need for interpersonal and familial relations. No moment in the film is more important than when the sound designers intentionally dialed back all the audio, putting the audience in the mind of someone who is deaf, creating a magical link between the two worlds. These small but significant touches, along with Jones’ and Kotsur’s performances, make several moments where this critic was drawn to tears.

“CODA” was the right way to start the Phoenix Film Festival. The film is now streaming on Apple TV+ and is in theaters. My hat’s off to all involved in the movie; the cast and crew’s commitment to delivering a story as affecting as it is and adapted from another film, “CODA” indeed does form an addition to the basic structure of a moving piece.


  • Movie Review: CODA