“CODA” is one of the best films of the year and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I reviewed it back in January after premiering Opening Night of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It arrived at a time when many of us needed something to cheer for. The film went on to win an unprecedented four awards at Sundance, including the top award, the Grand Jury Prize, plus a Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast, the Directing Award, and the Audience Award. This Friday, August 13, the crowd-pleasing film gets an official release as it arrives in theaters and premieres globally on Apple TV+.

(Originally reviewed January 29, 2021)

Siân Heder’s debut feature “Tallulah” premiered at Sundance in 2016. The writer-director returned to the festival this year with the opening-night film “CODA,” a touching and joyous family drama about a teenager named Ruby (Emilia Jones) who is the only hearing member of a deaf family. “CODA” stands for Child of Deaf Adults.

Based on the 2014 French comedy-drama “La Famille Bélier” and starring Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin as Ruby’s mother Jackie, the film takes a heartwarming look at the obstacles facing deaf people in a hearing world plus it’s a coming-of-age drama that highlights the pains of high school we all went through (bullying, crushes, and lunchroom melodrama).

Written and directed by Siân Heder, “CODA” is the antithesis of what you’d expect, filled with so much music and singing that one might wonder if Heder is an alias for filmmaker John Carney who brought us the music-themed films “Once,” “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street.” Filled with many uplifting moments, it’s a true gem with a perfect balance of emotions that range from watery-eyed moments to laugh-out-loud comedy. The funniest scenes are courtesy of Troy Kotsur (“The Mandalorian”) as Ruby’s loveable father Frank. Kotsur grew up as the only deaf member of his family and can command a scene with just his facial expressions.

Ruby, being the only hearing member of her family, is subject to many embarrassing moments. In one scene her parents begin having loud sex unaware that their daughter invited high school friend (and crush) Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) over to practice for choir. Frank also likes to embarrass Ruby by blaring gangsta rap when picking her up from school. He can’t hear the lyrics — which is probably best — but he can still feel the bass.

The cast also includes Daniel Durant as Ruby’s older brother Leo who is constantly on Tinder (there’s a funny scene that involves using the dating app at the dinner table). Like Matlin and Kotsur, Durant is also deaf and multi-talented. His recent accomplishments include signing his way to Broadway as Moritz in “Spring Awakening.” Leo may not stand out as much as the other characters, but he plays a vital role in getting his family to accept the fact that Ruby can’t stay at home forever. Leo is more than ready to take control of the family’s fishing business, but his parents rely too much on Ruby to help them communicate with customers and business associates.

When she’s not in school, Ruby is helping her father and brother bring in the day’s catch, serving as interpreter-negotiator when they go to market. But the teen’s true love is singing, which she does often in the boat. She’s good but never considered joining the choir until she met Miles who signs up for the class. Walsh-Peelo, who played Cosmo in “Sing Street,” once again whips out his guitar providing smooth vocals alongside Jones, the two have great chemistry.

Stealing just about every scene he’s in, Mexican actor-comedian Eugenio Derbez delivers his best performance yet as high school choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos, Mr. V to the students who can’t roll their R’s. He believes that Ruby is such a talented singer that he’s willing to give up his spare time to work with her so she can audition for the Berklee College of Music. Ruby never considered going off to college, she figured her place would always be at home working alongside her family. Mr. V helps Ruby realize that she must chase after her dream and begin living her own life.

Heder and Jones learned ASL for the film. Their commitment to authenticity makes “CODA” a genuine look at not only the struggles faced by the deaf community but more so their accomplishments. Jones is first-rate as the teenager caught between obligation and independence.

It’s great seeing Marlee Matlin back on the big screen after making her groundbreaking debut in 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God.” Matlin turns in a solid performance as the family’s sexy matriarch who accepts that she must let Ruby go. But at the same time, Jackie is selfish and doesn’t understand why her daughter would pursue a singing career since the rest of the family is deaf.

Heder’s sophomore film delivers plenty of laughs, wonderful singing, and emotional moments, especially during the film’s final chapter. There is a brilliant scene where the family attends Ruby’s singing recital. Halfway through her performance, Heder cuts the audio to give you the deaf family’s perspective. Lips are moving, hands are clapping but everything is silent. Since they can’t hear their daughter, they gauge her performance by looking around the auditorium to study the crowd’s reaction. It’s an eye-opening and brilliant scene. Later we watch as Frank asks Ruby to sing for him, placing his hands on her neck to feel the vibrations. “CODA” is irresistible and one of the best films you’ll see this year.

(4 stars)

Opens Friday, August 13 at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas)

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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