Hailing from the same school of generous, family-centric comedy-drama as past Sundance breakouts Little Miss Sunshine and The Farewell, Coda became a festival record-breaker when Apple TV shelled out $25m to buy it at the 2021 festival. With due deference to Apple’s business model and the judgment of its bean counters, it does seem like quite a lot for a movie that, while touching and always likeable, falls a way short of those heights.
Like the Riz Ahmed-starring Sound of Metal, Coda mines the day-to-day experiences, sense of solidarity and difficulties of the deaf community with real heart and empathy. The title, an acronym for ‘Child of Deaf Adults’, applies to high-schooler Ruby Rossi (winningly played by Londoner Emilia Jones), who uncomplainingly embraces the role of conduit for her deaf father and older brother on their Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing boat – as well as her mum (Children of the Lesser God’s Marlee Matlin, to date the only deaf actor to win an Oscar) at home.
But coda, of course, is a musical term too – and when Ruby reveals her soulful singing voice, her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez, a tonne of fun in some nattily professorial cardigans) offers to help her to get into Boston’s exclusive Berklee College of Music. Cue a crisis of conscience, cranked up a notch when the local fishing market turns the screws on local trawlermen and dad and bro need her to help them go it alone.
There aren’t too many surprises in the journey – especially if you’ve seen La Famille Bélier, the 2014 French film that Coda reworks – but writer-director Siân Heder’s deep affection for the Rossi clan is infectious. Alongside the terrific Matlin, deaf actors Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant lob cheery insults in American Sign Language (ASL) at each other (if you want to learnt how to sign the phrase ‘twat waffle’, look no further) and show how deafness can tighten a family’s bond in a way no hearing family could match. It’s majorly to the credit of Jones, who learnt ASL for the role, that she’s so at home in these scenes.
Best of all are the judiciously chosen moments when Heder strips away the sound altogether and invites you to experience the world from the perspective of her deaf characters. When Ruby performs in a school concert, her family have to scan strangers’ faces for cues that might as well be messages refracting off some distant satellite. On the flipside, she also stirringly showcases the expressiveness and musicality of sign language in a way that has so rarely been depicted on screen before. It may not be the next Little Miss Sunshine but Coda definitely has a warm glow all of its own.
In US cinemas and on Apple TV+ Aug 13.