Updated: Jul 6
At first sight, you would believe filmmaker Sian Heder's "CODA" is all about clichéd beats you've seen a million times before.
After all, it's a wonderfully familiar coming-of-age story about a gifted small-town girl from humble circumstances who aspires to pursue music in the big metropolis.
There's an optimistic instructor, a charming crush, heartfelt rehearsal montages, a high-stakes audition, and a family wary of their children's dreams.
Again, you may believe you already know everything about this feel-good recipe at first sight.
CODA, generous, gregarious, and graced with the biggest hearts, will prove you wrong.
It's not that Heder doesn't value the traditions mentioned above for their reassuring value—she does.
But, by inverting the pattern and placing this recognized narrative inside a new, possibly even pioneering environment with such loving, precisely observed precision, she pulls off nothing short of a beautiful miracle with her film, whose title is an acronym: Child of Deaf Adult.
The bright young girl in issue here, played by the outstanding Emilia Jones, happens to be one, navigating the complexities of her identity, interests, and familial expectations, striving to reconcile them without hurting anyone's feelings, including her own.
To be sure, CODA is based on the French film "La Famille Bélier," so the concept isn't wholly original.
The cast is what's fresh here, and it makes all the difference.
While the family in the well-meaning original was played by hearing cast members, they are all portrayed by real-life deaf performers in Heder's film.
A sensational group that includes legendary Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, scene-stealing Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant—infusing her adaptation with a rare, inherent kind of authenticity.
Ruby, a 17-year-old diligent high-schooler in the seaside Cape Ann's Gloucester, gets up at the break of dawn every day to assist her family, her father Frank, brother Leo, and mother Jackie, at their boat and recently discovered fish sales company.
Heder is eager to provide us with a genuine glimpse into Ruby's routine.
As the only hearing member of the Rossi clan, she is used to being her family's sign-language interpreter out in the world.
She spends her days translating every situation conceivable in two ways: at town meetings, at the doctor's office, and on the boat, where a hearing person is required to notice the signals and coastal announcements.
What Ruby has seems so balanced and awe-inspiring that it takes a while to realize how taxing the whole situation is for the little girl, even if she makes it appear effortless with maturity and a feeling of responsibility that belies her years.
For starters, she is all too aware of her parents' intimate lives, including their medical ailments and sex lives.
When the hearing world becomes rude or dismissive, she jumps in almost instinctively, always putting others above herself.
Sincerity pervades throughout CODA, from how Heder depicts Cape Ann and the culture that surrounds it via lived-in details to how she recognizes the pleasures and difficulties of a working-class family with honesty and humor while ever making them or their deafness the joke.
Most importantly, she helps us see and know in our bones that the Rossis are a genuine family with real dynamics, real relationships, and challenges of their own, both unique and universal like every other family.
What Ruby's chosen route reveals is the uniqueness of those regular struggles.
Heder sets out the answers open-handedly in a number of wonderfully generous passages, but notably in a couple that plays like mirror versions of each other.
During one, all sound disappears while Ruby sings in front of her closest friends and family, forcing us to see her performance through the eyes of the deaf.
On the other, sound doesn't matter at all, which features well-chosen music that could simply warm even the coldest of hearts.
Because Heder makes certain that we perceive the limitless love that exists in their common language.
CODA goes beyond the typical story of a youthful protagonist coming of age.
The difficulties of surviving high school are only a backdrop to the underlying issues, which are societal disadvantages and injustices inflicted on the deaf population.
As Ruby deviates from her family to follow her passion, she accidentally breaks their link with the outside world.
This has a variety of consequences.
They are never supplied with the resources to be adequately integrated into their community, which is a glaring criticism of society's ableist attitude.
The setting, too, exudes a certain mystical allure, making the entire movie feel like its own realm.
It all comes full circle when the fundamental issue becomes unavoidable: Ruby must mature, even if it means leaving her family behind.