Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a high school senior in Gloucester. She gets up at 3 a.m. to work on her family’s fishing boat, then goes to school. No wonder she falls asleep in class. She has a crush on a fellow student, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). She’s tough yet tender, independent yet devoted to her family. Ruby’s also a talented singer, talented enough that her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) wants her to audition for a scholarship to Berklee.
Described that way, “CODA” sounds like a version of a movie that’s been made many times: coming of age here, rooting for the underdog there, with some music in the middle. This version is different. “CODA” is a musical term, yes. Why, though, is the title uppercase? It’s uppercase because it’s also an acronym. CODA stands for “child of deaf adult.”
Ruby can hear, but her father (Troy Kotsur), mother (Marlee Matlin), and older brother (Daniel Durant) can’t. In this family, she’s the strange one, the changeling, in the minority. In some ways, the characters coming of age are as much the parents as Ruby. She’s their chief link to hearing society. If she leaves, how will they adjust?
This inside-out quality truly sets apart and distinguishes an otherwise conventional movie. A big hit at Sundance last winter, where it won both grand jury and audience awards, writer-director Sian Heder’s second film (”Tallulah,” her first, came out in 2016) is a real crowd-pleaser. Partly, that’s because of the conventionality. Even more, though, the crowd-pleasing is owing to Jones. Ruby is an underdog worth rooting for, and Jones (the Netflix series “Locke & Key”) is terrific. She’s like a cross between the young Winona Ryder and the young Kate Winslet. The comparison flatters all three.
The music teacher, Mr. Villalobos, assigns Ruby and Miles a duet on “You’re All I Need to Get By.” There’s another movie opening this week about a musical young woman, “Respect” — and Aretha Franklin sang “You’re All I Need,” too. Jennifer Hudson is very good in the role, taking advantage of the opportunity that playing a larger-than-life character offers. Jones is even better, meeting head on what is in some ways a harder challenge, playing a just-like-life character.
The most impressive aspect of Jones’s performance is its control. No matter how trying Ruby’s circumstances — and they can get trying, all right — Jones never overplays. The same can’t be said for Debrez, as Villalobos. The character serves a dual purpose. He sets in motion several important plot elements. He also provides comic relief, something “CODA” doesn’t lack. (To Heder’s credit, this is a serious movie that is in no way solemn.) Even granting that Villalobos is a part written as all pirouette, Debrez throws in plié and jeté, too. The performance is quite entertaining, but it throws the movie out of whack.
“CODA” might be described as the intersection of singing and signing. (Have you ever noticed how similar the words look?) “It’s my favorite thing,” Ruby tells Villalobos about singing. When he asks how she feels when she sings, she can’t put it into words. Instead, she signs to describe her emotions.
Hearing Ruby sing is an experience denied her parents. Her father is more understanding of her passion. He loves playing rap really (really) loud when driving his pickup truck, since he can pick up the bass vibrations. Her mother, though, takes Ruby’s commitment to music almost as an affront. “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” she asks.
Deaf actors play the deaf characters, and those characters use American Sign Language. Heder, who’s not deaf, learned ASL for the movie. It’s fascinating to see how much more expressive the gestures can be than the subtitles accompanying them. Can people swear in ASL? They sure can, and quite creatively, too. That’s another source of comedy in “CODA.”
For one key sequence, Heder drops out the sound. We still see what’s going on, but we can’t hear it. The audience has suddenly been put in the position of Ruby’s parents. It’s such a simple device, but it’s revelatory. The movie’s inside-out quality now extends to those watching it.
Thirty-five years ago, Matlin won a best actress Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God.” That movie seemed like a breakthrough, in terms of Hollywood’s treatment of deaf characters. It wasn’t. Now “CODA” comes in the wake of “Sound of Metal” (2020), where Riz Ahmed plays a rock drummer going deaf, and this spring’s “A Quiet Place Part II,” in which a leading character is deaf and played, superbly, by the young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds. Popular culture is all about churn. Sometimes, though less often than we might think, that churn also means actual change. Will “CODA” prove more prelude than coda?
Written and directed by Sian Heder. Starring Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Dedham Community, and streaming on Apple TV+. 112 minutes. In English and American Sign Language. PG-13 (language, sexual situations).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.