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The fantastic, funny and heartfelt dramedy “CODA” doesn’t astound by breaking the mold of teen romances and coming-of-age tales. Instead, its brilliance lies in combining these well-tread tropes with an important sense of inclusion for a sweet story that truly sings.
Written and directed by Siân Heder – and based on a 2014 French film – “CODA” (★★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters and on Apple TV+) features a breakthrough role for talented newcomer Emilia Jones and a thoughtful narrative that takes audiences into the personal lives of a deaf family with a single hearing member. By the end, you’ll have Joni Mitchell stuck in your head, a renewed respect for Oscar-winning great Marlee Matlin, perhaps a want to learn American Sign Language and probably a couple of tear-drenched hankies.
So if "Ted Lasso" hasn't already inspired you to sign up for Apple TV+, this should do the trick.
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Ruby (Jones) is a 17-year-old Massachusetts girl – the Child of Deaf Adults, or "CODA" in the title – who works on the family fishing boat with her worrying mom Jackie (Matlin), salty dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) and headstrong brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Seafood buyers in the coastal town of Gloucester try to take advantage of the working-class clan, with Ruby usually stepping in as the resident translator. She juggles that life with her high school days, where she’s mocked by classmates for her hardscrabble roots (“Do you smell fish?” one mean girl quips passing by Ruby in the hall).
When it’s time to sign up for clubs, Ruby sees her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) join choir and follows suit. Ruby is actually a really good singer, though her first meeting with eccentric choir director Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) brings out old insecurities.
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Mr. V takes an interest in Ruby, though, pairing her with Miles for a duet and offering to help her get ready for an audition at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. But her parents, a randy twosome who live to embarrass Ruby, don’t understand this new direction for her interests and insist she’s needed to help their struggling business. “If I was blind, would you want to paint?” Jackie signs to her daughter.
Like last year’s excellent “Sound of Metal,” Heder gives hearing viewers the perspective of a deaf person: When Ruby performs at a school concert, you experience the same silence as her dad, and instead of listening to the impact of his daughter’s powerful voice, you witness it in the facial reactions of those sitting by him. Similarly, during an emotional conversation between Ruby and her mom that's a long time coming, Heder again strips away the sound so audiences can give undivided attention to their hands signing and the important connection between mother and daughter.
Matlin charms as a mom doing what she can for the family while also navigating her own issues interacting with the hearing world, and Kotsur’s sure to find some new fans as the dad having his world opened up by experiencing – in his own way – Ruby’s musical gift. Jones is the most impressive standout, showing the blossoming from an awkward teen girl to one owning a freedom of confidence. Her chemistry with Walsh-Peelo is decent enough, though Jones and Derbez – a notoriously lively Mexican comedic star who lends a nuanced and restrained performance here – are a more dynamic duo.
The crowd-pleasing “CODA” uses a touching lead performance, common themes and a glimpse at a spirited deaf family to craft a beautiful exercise in empathy chock full of the warm fuzzies.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'CODA' review: Apple TV+'s dramedy is a beautiful exercise in empathy