The movie CODA puts a twist on the usual reasons for its teenage protagonist to feel like an outcast. That acronym CODA, or Child of Deaf Adults, fits the movie’s protagonist, a girl who desperately wants to blend into the bland confines of standard high school life.
Instead, she shifts between worlds with different communication styles. Using sign language, her parents and brother convey their emotions with more intensity and passion than the speaking community, whose members often use words to cloud rather than clarify their thoughts. Screenwriter/director Sian Heder makes sign language one of the movie’s highlights. She lets the broad system of movements, gestures, and facial expressions make it easy to pick out the basics of a conversation, though subtitles clarify specifics.
The actors contribute even more, led by the only deaf woman to win an Oscar, Marlee Matlin. As she has since winning that award more than thirty years ago for Children of a Lesser God, Matlin expertly controls her features to express emotional highs and lows. An extra layer of intensity comes by working with two other deaf actors, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant. With years of experience using sign language, the three run riffs on each other and seemingly make up dialogue for scenes, ranging from funny to heartrending.
Months of intense study means Emilia Jones—comparatively new to signing—joins in with realistic speed and ease as the title’s CODA. Besides signing like a natural, she sings, adding to her character’s conflict since her family can never fully appreciate the talent she badly wants to foster. Given a shot at a scholarship to a prestigious musical school, she finds herself running down a well-worn path used in many teenage dramas.
The twist provided by deafness gives CODA its distinction since much of the plot includes basic cliches found in any story about a high school kid chasing a dream. Predictable, yes, but no reasonable person wants failure for this genuinely warm and loving family. CODA streams on Apple TV+.