SUNDANCE: “CODA,” a coming-of-age story loaded with emotional range

The life of a teenager is so many things. It is a time of growth and independence, a time of friendship and self-discovery.

But life as a teenager is also hard. You want to be independent and be your own person. You feel grown up and are beginning to make future life decisions while on the books, the law still considers you a child.

In writer/director Sian Heder’s new film “CODA”, (Child of Deaf Adults), seventeen year-old Ruby Ross (a particularly good Emilia Jones) is the only hearing family member. Her parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Leo (Daniel Durant), and older brother, Frank (Troy Kotsur) are all deaf.

Ruby has a deep love of music and wants to pursue it for her future and live out a long-desired dream.

The Ross family are close and there are many natural scenes that play like a documentary. These scenes solidify the warmth and connection the family shares and are enhanced by the lived-in feel the actors give to their characters.

Ruby has a good life but not the normal, seemingly-carefree existence that her friends enjoy when the school bell rings at the end of the day.

Even though she is a standout in her school choir and a great student in general, most of Ruby’s spare time is spent working off of her family’s Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing boat. Her days start early and last long.

Ruby is a strong soul regarding her family and dreams but is still a bit awkward around her peers. She wants to enjoy the last moments that remain in her childhood, but life guides her where it must, as she is the sole interpreter for her family and the hearing world.

Ruby does make important connections. She becomes enamored with fellow classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). The two actors create an organic and believable chemistry. Ruby also develops a sweet bond with her music teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), who sees some real talent in his student and trains her for an audition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Heder’s film is a coming-of-age drama that focuses on how family shapes a young person’s outlook on their future. While a film like this certainly has some unavoidable clichés, the director and her strong cast earn the feel-good moments and the scenes of family drama ring true.

Director Sian Heder

Heder’s screenplay smartly makes Ruby’s family strong personalities and does not manipulate the audience into feeling sorry for them due to their disability. Each character is imbued with credibility, the actors up to the challenge. Marlee Matlin reminds us of why she earned her Oscar win for 1986’s arrestingly moving “Children of a Lesser God.” This is the best role that the actress has been gifted since that film.

While there is an inherent “spread my wings and fly” element to the Ruby Rossi character, Emilia Jones grounds her performance and insures that there aren’t any missteps.

The deaf community is underrepresented in cinema. This film realistically deals with a family who works in a community that is not interested in learning their language, hence the dependence on Ruby.

I hope this film will open new doors and show Hollywood that deaf actors have a voice in cinema.

“Coda” is an engaging and accomplished film that shows a range of human emotions.