Movie Review: A singer comes of age in a fishing family, “CODA”

Well, we’re into August. So I guess I can say, with all confidence, that “CODA” is the feel good movie of the summer.

It’s a plucky and poignant coming-of-age romance about a teen who loves to sing. But as a “Child of Deaf Adults” (CODA), that’s not something this Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing family values. If Ruby, played by British actress Emilia Jones (“PATrick the Pug,” T’s “Locke & Key”), is going to do something with her talent, she’ll have to manage that on her own, and squeeze it in between all the responsibilities she has in her insular, tightknit family.

Writer-director Sian Heder (“Orange is the New Black”) builds her story on that foundation, how Ruby, had to grow up entirely too fast. She is her family’s interpreter of the hearing world, signing everything from negotiations over the price of flounder to Mom and Dad’s (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) urgent and embarrassing visit to the doctor.

Who knew “jock itch” could be transmitted via sex? What teen would want to hear that, or for that matter her parents’ uninhibited, cacophonous coitus?

But we also learn how Ruby, born with hearing, endured teasing from the very start of school because she didn’t have parents who could teach her to speak. The mean girl insults aren’t just “Do you smell fish?” in Ruby’s case. “Freak” is a hard label to shake.

But on the boat, where she’s just as vital to the family’s ability to function as everywhere else, Ruby belts out soul of the ’60s. That’s not why she signs up for choir. She sees cute Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) join up, and picks her junior year elective accordingly.

Lucky for Ruby ’60s soul, Marvin Gaye and Motown, is also the jam of choir director “Berrrnarrrrrrrrrrrdo Villalobos,” played with flamboyant, theatrical glee by Mexican star Eugenio Derbez, who finally has a North American role worthy of his talents.

Because “Dios mio,” this “Mister V” is unconventional, from his “Little Dog, Big Dog” panting (breath control) exercises to choosing the nakedly sexual “Let’s Get it On” for their repertoire.

And Mr. V. “hears something” in Ruby, a talent that could change her destiny.

Heder decorates this intimate, lived-in world with little flourishes of color. Ruby’s true-blue friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth) is on a bit of a sexual tear, one that might make its way into Ruby’s family.

“Leo got HOT,” Gertie coos about Ruby’s deaf fisherman brother (Daniel Durant).

“Ewwwwwwww!”

“What? He can’t HEAR me!”

Miles, from a musical family, is picked to duet the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell “You’re All I Need to Get By” with shy Ruby. But how will her family, especially Dad and brother Leo, “get by” on the trawler Angela Rose without their hearing shipmate?

The songs were carefully selected to mirror the dramatic situations we see unfolding. Ruby is literally seeing and hearing life from “Both Sides Now,” and “It’s Your Thing” and “Let’s Get It On” need no explanation.

Heder serves up the stand-bys of such musical dramedies with skill. The audition for choir bit amuses even before the cherubic James Corden look-alike pipes up. We know there’ll be a scene when the family has to sit through a concert they can’t hear, and Heder tugs at the expected heartstrings, and finds clever ways to pump up the poignancy built into the moment.

There’s a hint of edge to the nature of the family’s dependence on their child, with Oscar-winner Matlin playing the hell out of Mom’s focused myopia. Her demands, and the family’s, are always going to come first. Veteran bit player Kotsur’s animated signing can be furious or hilarious, and he and Matlin comically click as a couple.

Jones has a winsome screen presence and a pleasant, lilting voice that may not sell Ruby as “Berklee School of Music” material, but thin or not, it gets by.

As does “CODA.” If the advertising doesn’t lean on that old standby, “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry,” somebody at Apple is missing the boat.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for strong sexual content and language (profanity) and drug content (pot use)

Cast: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth and Eugenio Derbez

Credits: Scripted and directed by Sian Heder. An Apple (August 13) release.

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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