How does music shape us? It’s a question filmmakers have pondered a lot as of late, in films such as Summer of Soul, In the Heights, and now Sian Heder’s big Sundance winner CODA starring Emelia Jones, currently on Apple+ TV. But where those other films were about music’s impact on culture, CODA is about music’s impact on an individual, and the role it plays in their life. As a beacon of hope and a glimmer of light, music can be more than just a beat, lyric, and rhythm to jam to. It can also be a compass.
It’s a lifeline for Ruby Rossi (Jones), a teenager living on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 17, her life is tough: school, getting bullied, waking up at 3 a.m. Alone in her room, she finds joy listening to Motown, Marvin Gaye, and Joni Mitchell (the soundtrack is epic!), and she turns the volume up so loud you think her parents would be furious. But they can’t hear her upstairs, nor can they hear her voice trickling down the quiet harbor, where they spend most mornings fishing to make ends meet.
Ruby is a CODA — child of deaf adults — and as such, she is the only hearing member of the family and is the household’s chief interpreter. She’s a high school senior with dreams of a singing career, so the responsibility of being her family’s guardian clashes with her hard-fought journey toward stardom. Over the course of two hours, Ruby has to decide whether she will continue helping her family (played by deaf actors Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant) or follow her dream, as so many coming-of-age heroines have done before her.
The performance required of Jones is tricky, as she navigates the push-pull between Ruby’s shyness and her quick, extroverted wit. She finds a way to juggle four personalities at once, hopping from work to school to home to choir, with each of these spaces requiring a different persona to blend in. Like most teenagers, she can’t act the same around her parents as she does with her best friend (Amy Forsyth), which only adds to the verisimilitude of Jones’ performance. Also great are the supporting players, including Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Eugenio Derbez as the choir teacher, who just about steals the show.
The story is simple but what makes the film remarkable is how Heder effortlessly harmonizes tone, pace, and performance. CODA builds so subtly and beautifully it’s overwhelming, infused with payoffs that will not only have you crying once, but two or three times. It lives up to its title, all right, with an ending that takes all the little details, moments, memories and needle drops from the first two acts, and brings them back for a rousing, uplifting, wipe-the-tears-from-your-face encore.
If you’ve ever been shaped by a song or an artist, or found yourself chasing a dream no one else believed in, Ruby’s final moments on screen will resonate like few others ever have. To quote Lou Reed: “Her life is saved by rock n roll.”