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Family attachment

CODA’s emotional punch stays true to life as a family’s deaf members struggle to let their hearing daughter chase a newfound dream

Apple TV+

Family attachment

Coming of age stories can be predictable. And CODA (short for Child of Deaf Adult) has its shortcomings. But its uniqueness (multiple deaf characters and their challenging dynamics) and its elevation of family love and loyalty make it a worthwhile watch on Apple TV+ and in theaters.

The film focuses on 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family, as she attempts to find her own voice—literally.

Her family has no idea she’s a phenomenal singer. Even she doesn’t realize her gift until her high-school choir director Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez)—who initially seems like an artsy, scarf-wearing caricature but is actually a warm-hearted teacher—listens to her sing. Then he proposes training her: “If I’m offering, it’s because I hear something.” He wants her to audition for a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

But Ruby’s commitment to help her deaf family navigate the hearing world collides with her desire to sing. For generations her family has fished for a living off the coast of Gloucester, Mass. Every morning before school Ruby helps on the family trawler hoisting and separating the netted catch, then selling it to buyers who try to undercut prices. The long hours interfere with voice lessons and cause her to fall asleep in class.

Her bawdy parents—hippie throwbacks still madly in love—assume Ruby will always be there to interpret. Ruby’s mom (Marlee Matlin) guilts her into decisions, while her dad (Troy Kotsur) has never tried to devise another plan for his family. Older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is torn between needing Ruby’s help and getting angry because he wants to assume responsibility and start a fishing co-op.

The actors portraying Ruby’s family are themselves deaf. About 40 percent of the film’s dialogue is in American Sign Language, usually interpreted by Ruby.

Some themes are all too familiar: mean girls who mock Ruby for her unusual family and her occasional fishy smell, her supportive boyfriend with his own family problems, and the question of whether Ruby will get to audition.

Sadly, we never hear a note of anything spiritual but do see a bit of objectionable content (CODA is rated PG-13 for drug use, strong sexual content—including a sex scene—and bad language, including some in sign language).

Still, director Sian Heder does an admirable job helping actors grow their characters into people we start caring about. One such poignant directorial moment is when the film goes silent while we see—not hear—Ruby belt out a song. In numerous scenes she accurately catches tension or humor, and we can’t miss how much these family members love each other.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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