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‘Coda’: The conflict is unique, but the dynamic is universal in smart teen drama

The only family member who can hear feels torn between loyalty to home and success for herself.

Ruby (Emilia Jones, left), a teen who can hear, upsets her deaf mother (Marlee Matlin) by taking up singing in “Coda.”
Apple TV+

The Apple TV+ original film “Coda” — the story of a Child of Deaf Adults, a.k.a. Coda — has made news on a number of fronts prior to its release on the streaming service as well as in theaters around the world.

  • When Apple acquired “Coda” at Sundance this year, the company paid an all-time festival record of $25 million for the rights.
  • Whether you’re watching from home or in the theater, the movie will feature “open subtitles,” i.e., they’re burned into the picture, eliminating the need for special glasses. This is reported to be a first for a major American, English-language theatrical release.
  • The British actress Emilia Jones plays 17-year-old Ruby, the only hearing person in a deaf family that includes her mother Jackie, played by Marlee Matlin; her father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and her older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). All three of Ruby’s family members are played by amazing actors who are deaf.

That’s a lot of (deserved) buzz for what turns out to be a sweet and smart if thoroughly predictable teen movie/family drama. You can see every plot point coming from around the corner, but you can’t help but get swept up in the unique and complicated but deeply loving family dynamic — and how can you go wrong with a movie which prominently features beautiful performances of the romantic and timeless “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Both Sides Now”?

Jones’ Ruby is the classic heroine straight out of the Teen Movie Playbook — a smart, funny, shy, endearing, instantly likable high school senior who lives in a small Massachusetts fishing town with her family, a rowdy and hardworking and close-knit clan. Every morning, long before the sun rises, Ruby joins her father Frank (Kotsur) and her brother Leo (Durant) to haul in the day’s catch of fresh fish — and then she’s off to school, where the Mean Girls make fun of her for smelling like cod and aren’t they the worst!

Ruby’s family depends on her to act as the translator, the go-between, to the world beyond their ramshackle home, which is filled with love and squabbling and scatological humor and a running joke about how mom and dad have a VERY active sex life, with only Ruby being able to hear the sounds they make when in the throes of passion. Ruby’s parents and her brother are stunned when she tells them she has joined the choir and her music teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez as a modern-day Mr. Holland), believes she’s good enough to earn a full scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Ruby’s music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) urges her to keep developing her voice.
Apple TV+

Frank and Leo feel betrayed, but it’s Ruby’s overprotective mother who is most wounded, and at first the least understanding about Ruby’s love of singing. (“If I was blind, would you want to paint?” she says.) Will Ruby have to put her dreams on hold in order to help a family that truly needs her? Is there a way for everything to somehow work out in the end? Will tears be shed and hugs given? What do you think, friend?

“Coda” features a nice little romance between Ruby and a handsome and well-liked boy named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), but this is primarily a story about a family. A family that just happens to communicate via ASL but will remind you of families you know, or maybe even the family you know best.