If you smelt something similar to fish around here, no you didn't. Director-writer Sian Heder's sophomore feature CODA (child of deaf adults in short, that is) might make you hallucinate with those kind of scents since it does take place in the seaside town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, with its characters working on fishing boats there. Our main character Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a high-schooler who joins the school choir in her last year because her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) signs up as well, there she finds an unexpected love for singing with the help of teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez). As she gets more invested in singing, the pressure of choosing between following her passion of music or staying around to help her deaf family (Daniel Durant as brother Leo, Marlee Matlin as mom Jackie, Troy Kotsur as dad Frank) in their business, grows larger because she happens to be a hearing person who often works as the connection between her family and others.
First 15 minutes of the film are full of rather confident storytelling, instantly and effortlessly setting the scene with quick introductions to locations and characters we'll be seeing more of. I haven't seen the original French film that it's based on so I can't compare but as a first feeling, it seems like this manages to do that on its own terms pretty well. What's interesting about CODA is that it mixes genres that we don't often see together done this well - something that surprised me as I only knew what the title meant - it has your average family drama as its foundation, introduces coming-to-age and rom-com elements later and then quietly blossoms into musical mode, executing that better than most fully committed musicals. Credit to the sound design and music production team that the musical moments feel just as real as the family life portrayed, even if turns out to be 100% ADR, because this is how performances should sound in a movie. They aren't overproduced or overstuffed, they just flow with the story.
When it comes to that story and how Ruby's journey plays out, there isn't much special or super original about it and some aspects work better than others. The Ruby-Miles romance plot is a bit so-so, as is Leo and Ruby's friend's, and the drama about Ruby's ultimate decision is your standard stuff, she even misses her practice because of poor time management. It also feels slightly odd to talk about the music and sound choices since the film does involve deaf characters and actors, as well as a lot of sign language. On that front, the performances eventually are what stand out in CODA, namely those of Jones and Durant's as the young guns in the family. Jones gets one of the best scenes of the year at the end which combines beautifully Ruby's first language and her passion for music while Durant compliments Jones' showier role with his more lowkey and subtle outing. Scenes that feature the whole Rossi family exemplify all of the film's themes because even when they're a bit predictable, they're just as heartwarming and pure, as shown best with their last scene.
Smileys: Emilia Jones, Daniel Durant, pacing
Frowneys: Minor issues with originality and story
Maybe it's just me but back-to-back singing is weirder than facing each other.