How Sian Heder’s ‘CODA’ creates magic without much effort

They say you’re supposed to deal with the cards dealt to you in life, and find a way to make do with what you have. Few understand that reality more than Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones).

She gets up at 3 a.m. every morning to help her family on their fish boat, which is the main livelihood for most families in their small town. But all the high school senior can think about is singing, something that is becoming more of a part of her as she eclipses the teenager wasteland benchmark of 17 years of age. There’s just one problem: Ruby’s family; her mother, father, and brother; are deaf and rely on her to communicate with hearing people. She loves both things dearly but crossroads only allow you to choose one path.

What I loved about Sian Heder’s “CODA,” which stands for child of deaf adults, is that it created magic without much effort. The best kind of movies don’t need CGI or visual dazzle to lure you in and put both hands around your heart; it’s all in the writing, acting… the storytelling that connects a stranger in an audience to a story that should affect and hit every soul as hard as a rock. It’s not just another coming-of-age tale that Hollywood drops into our lap at least once a month; “CODA” is the kind of feel good movie that earns its grace and warmth by caring about its characters and world just as much as it wishes to be the most popular movie.

According to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, no movie was more golden. Heder’s film was the first film to ever win all four of its biggest awards-including the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize-and it’s no secret why. The acting, story, direction, and timeliness of the plot all mix together so well, a cohesive cinematic force that should be unstoppable this fall/winter awards season. A movie that makes an impact all due to the people involved and not just because it focuses on the deaf community.

But it’s that focus and care shown to the experience of being deaf and all its limitations by Heder, who also wrote one of the year’s best scripts here, that pushes “CODA” into another area of expertise and intrigue. Her movie has personality and wit, along with the ingenious ability to NOT present the Rossi family as a wholesome, perfect family. The pleasure here lies in the eccentricity yet relatable details one will find in the Rossi household, such as Ruby’s parents, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) inability to be quiet about their sex life. One of the best and funniest moments in the movie happens when Frank playfully instructs Ruby’s boyfriend (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) how to properly wear a condom. Or when Ruby has to explain, or translate, to a doctor what exactly is wrong with her mom and dad’s private regions. Where most movies would gloss over or perform something that is uncomfortable, Heder’s film sits down and spends time in that area, garnering laughs and truth.

Because after all, life isn’t exactly comfort. It’s finding the unexpected in the lack of comfort. That’s what “CODA” does so well, especially during a family dinner where Ruby wants to know why her brother’s Tinder page is better table fodder than her singing. “Tinder is something we can do as a family.” If every parent doesn’t scream out loud laughing, you need more French fries in your life or something. Instead of running from unconventional methods of telling an end of innocence story that happens to revolve around a deaf family, Heder leans into the idea of actually getting to know the Rossis and not making them mere types. That’s the MAGIC in this movie, which breezes along at just under 110 minutes.

If you don’t know who many of the cast members are, don’t worry. I didn’t either, outside of a couple faces. You can get to know them through their roles here. Along with a beautiful voice and a ferocity that doesn’t force its way into our minds, James is a real talent. And she can sing with the best of them too. Martin evokes grace and blunt mothership with ease as a woman desperately trying to resist change. Durant isn’t just the annoying brother here, which opens the actor up to create not just the older sibling who wants more responsibility, but someone who feels inferior to his sister. That dynamic isn’t wasted here, but filled in with good writing.

Kotsur is a revelation, producing emotions and hilarity out of the smallest gestures or reactions. An old lion who is tired of playing the same old fisherman game, he sees Ruby leaving for music in college as an end to his means, even if he knows how much pressure sits on his daughter’s shoulders. It’s a moving piece of work from the veteran actor, one you probably didn’t notice before, but will have a hard time missing in the future.

Eugenio Derbez, the star of a painfully underseen yet very sharp 2017 comedy, “How to be a Latin Lover,” nearly steals the show as Ruby’s compassionate yet strict and outside-the-box-thinking music teacher. Playing the person at the other end of the sword demanding her to follow her dreams because he knows how a singing career can go, Derbez gives the role something extra–but again, without trying too hard to show it. Instead of the same beats and pitstops, this battle of wills between teacher and student finds its momentum and personality on its own terms instead of cinema’s past filling in the blanks. Heder gives him all the tools to give the kind of performance that reminds moviegoers that the teacher role can hold the most juice in this genre.

But it’s the script that steals the show here. It’s so natural, honest, and heartwarming all at once. If you know the movies, you know those three things don’t share a bed in most scripts. Heder really knocked this out of the park, taking an unknown-yet highly entertaining and evocative-route to telling Ruby’s story. Without beating us over the head with that same old, thankless message of chasing your dreams, the writer-director makes all those themes fresh and transcendent again.

Change is a part of all our lives, sometimes more so for certain people early on in their lives, ones like Ruby. She loves her family and her voice, but her future can only have one star. A teenager who never got to be a kid herself for long enough, “CODA” reminds her and us that there’s plenty of time and empathy out there.

It’s a connective film. A truly great movie that everyone should see.

2 thoughts on “How Sian Heder’s ‘CODA’ creates magic without much effort

    1. Thanks for pointing that out. It’s corrected. I mainly use this hub to draft movie reviews before sending them to KSDK, and on occasion I will post one to this site for my longtime readers. Lazy edit later, and Marlee’s name was misspelled. The good thing about a shame is that a small correction later, and it’s all better. Like ripping off a band-aid.

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