Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
If “The Power of the Dog” is the odds-on favorite for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, “CODA” is the plucky underdog that’s easy to root for.
It doesn’t have much in the way of star power, with few big names among its cast or crew. It landed on one of the lower-profile streaming services — Apple TV+ — following early film festival appearances. It’s a small-scale indie production adapted from a foreign film of similar scope and character.
Yet, it assuredly deserves its place in the conversation. Like “The Power of the Dog,” it’s ultimately a film about family relationships grounded in a strong sense of place. And the core themes it mines from that foundation will likely hit close to home for folks with rural and small-town roots.
In fact, “CODA” may prove to be an enduring favorite for rural homecomers and small-town expats. Its title refers to the term “Child of Deaf Adults,” but, in what is surely not an accident or coincidence, the basics of the plot also mirror the common definition of the term: a concluding event or passage.
The story follows Ruby Rossi, the teenage daughter of two deaf parents. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby plays a vital role in supporting her parents and her older brother, particularly when it comes to the family fishing business. As she approaches the final days of high school, Ruby is confronted with the question of whether she will leave to pursue new dreams or stay for the sake of her family and their livelihood.
It’s a well-worn tale, but it’s executed here thoughtfully and confidently. This is a coming-of-age family film in the mold of previous award winners like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Lady Bird.” Whereas watching some award-season movies can feel like an academic exercise, the entertainment equivalent of doing all the reading, this is without question a crowd pleaser of a film. It’s sweet and funny but doles out moments of deeper pathos in perfect measure. It’s a warm hug of a movie, landing squarely in what you might call “feel-good” territory by the time all is said and done.
The experience of a deaf family might feel exceedingly specific, but the film succeeds in large part because of how it sets this specific family’s situation against relatively universal challenges. Lessons on loving, leaving, and understanding, as well as parenting and trusting one another. Questions of what we owe the people we care about and how we learn to do things together, and apart.
That the members of Ruby’s family can’t hear doesn’t necessarily change the meaning, it amplifies it. The feelings on display are ones most anyone could relate to, but the stakes feel higher and the character arcs more pointed and profound because of the Rossi clan’s unique circumstances.
The performances deserve much of the credit for making that come through. The Rossi’s feel like a real, relatable family. And it’s a testament to the talent on display that a serious family argument can feel sharp and disruptive while also taking place in relative silence. Relying on a core cast of deaf actors, the use of sign-language does not limit emotional range and dramatic expression, it extends it. Whether it’s anger and hurt or silly and profane humor, the film gives the actors ample opportunity to use all the tools at their disposal to the fullest. It also makes us as viewers focus on the performances more closely and engage with them on a deeper level.
For example, I was reminded, in seeing the characters make the hand signal for “I love you,” how my mom taught me to do the same thing when I was small, whenever we would part. This again brought home the essential universality of the themes driving this story and the language animating their delivery.
As commonplace as some of the narrative beats of “CODA” can be, this is why it stands out as a more singular work.
Anywhere and Everywhere
The small-town setting is positioned to have a similar effect, amplifying the themes and meaning of the film. However, some might find the execution in this area too conventional. Conflict is mined from familiar notions of big institutions versus the “little guys,” in this case the top-down expertise of government scientists and corporate seafood sellers set against the long-lived local experience of multi-generational fishing families. Economic desperation is an undercurrent to this plotline, with one main character even offering the time-honored lament, “This is what I’ve done all my life, I don’t know how to do anything else.”
The backdrop for these affairs is Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is not the most rural place by any stretch. But, for the purposes of the story, it could just as well be any small fishing village in greater New England — further into rural New Hampshire or Maine — or elsewhere entirely. In fact, in “La Famille Bélier,” the film “CODA” is adapted from, the setting is not a fishing village at all, but a farm in the French countryside.
This illustrates how the implied rural setting is meant to evoke another level of perceived distance between our teenage lead and her family, separated by deafness and now potentially geography and culture too, if dreams in Boston (or Paris) materialize. The movie also captures subtly but surely enough how life in smaller, more remote towns can present added barriers to connection and self-realization for people with disabilities (it also hints at how these places can step up in unique ways when called upon).
Beyond these deeper thematic tensions, the small-town setting also does plenty to enrich the story on a surface level. Scenes on the family boat out on the open water are some of the film’s most visually arresting, as are solitary moments on dirt roads, in the woods, or at a remote pond.
Meanwhile, all the little details feel authentic and reveal more about who these characters are. Whether it’s the staging of the Rossi’s humble but lovely family home or Ruby’s secret past-time of cliff jumping to escape and blow off steam, I again saw reverberations of my own small-town upbringing coming to life on screen.
One of the film’s most resonant moments features Ruby and her dad sitting on the tailgate of the family pickup truck talking about the stars and the night sky. It’s a pivotal and poignant scene. Whatever your formal definitions for rural places and rural people, and by extension “rural movies,” much of the essence is on display and captured in this moment.
It also confirms that “CODA” is a can’t-miss film, certainly among the best from this past year.
CODA is streaming on Apple TV+ and may also be playing in select theaters near you. Note, Apple TV+ offers a variety of free trials for those who are not currently subscribed to the service.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.