CODA. M, 111 minutes. Four stars
I try not to read about the films I'm about to review before I see them. I want to go into them like a fresh-faced punter at the movies because I want to be as surprised and crazed and angry as everyone else, and pretend I'm not the jaded film critic I really am, having seen everything and then seen it remade eight times.
So I turned on CODA on Apple+ TV and got right into this charming feature about the hearing daughter among her hearing-impaired family. It won me over immediately, but halfway through I sat upright and thought: this is that French movie!
Turns out I was right. Released in Australia as The Belier Family, original French title La Famille Belier, the French movie was about a girl growing up in a farming community in regional France. Her deaf parents count on her for interpreting to help with the family business, which in turn causes family challenges when the girl's dreams of going to music school emerge. It absolutely charmed audiences and deservedly so.
The gloriously shot, much-bigger-budgeted American remake CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults, but is also the musical term for a passage that brings a musical movement to an end) enjoys the same production team as the French original.
However, the bones of The Belier Family are fleshed out in new, muscular ways by writer-director Sian Heder, working with deaf creative collaborators Anne Tomasetti and Alexandria Wailes. The French production received some well-deserved stick for casting hearing actors in its lead deaf roles.
Not so here, with none other than Oscar winner Marlee Matlin as family matriarch Jackie Rossi. Jackie is so smoking hot that dad Frank (Troy Kotsur) can't keep his hands off her, much to the embarrassment of their kids Ruby (Emilia Jones) and Leo (Daniel Durant).
The family runs a small fishing boat, with Ruby's alarm going off at 3am each morning to join Frank and Leo out for the morning catch, and Ruby doing the negotiating for the sale of the catch to the local warehouse before heading to school.
The confident negotiator and businesswoman disappears in the school corridors when a lifetime of the casual cruelty of her school peers has taken its toll. Schoolmates making fun of her deaf family have turned Ruby into a shy student and when newly arrived music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) calls her out to sing in front of the class, she is mortified and flees.
"If I were blind, would you want to paint?" she asks.
Mr V does eventually catch the sounds coming from the shy girl in the choir and he recognises that she is indeed a fine untrained talent and offers to coach her towards the goal of auditioning for the Boston music school, Berklee.
From a 3am start, Ruby is now also adding after-school music training and rehearsal and the cracks in the family's well-oiled machine begin to show.
They depend on Ruby's interpreting for their business and their interactions with the local community that has never even tried to understand their deaf neighbours. What would happen if Ruby were to leave for school?
Such thought has gone into the crafting of each character in this film, and then the strong writing is gifted with talented people giving them life. Matlin's Jackie initially laughs off Ruby's interest in music as teenage rebellion against her deaf family.
"If I were blind, would you want to paint?" she asks. With a single sideways glance, Matlin show us the insecurity bubbling away under Jackie's outwardly bright demeanour.
The exchanges between brother and sister are as caustic as any real-life exchange between teenage siblings.
Layered over the bittersweet conversations hearing parents have over watching their children become adults and seek to leave home is the weight of Ruby's contribution to the family business and concerns it might not survive without her.
There are brilliant performances all around, notably a warm turn by British actress Emilia Jones as Ruby and seething masculinity from Durant, who sees Ruby leaving as his chance to prove himself.
Without being played overly for laughs, the film is also rich with character-based comedy and is laugh-out-loud funny in many moments.
Removing sound from scenes at pivotal moments is what brought audiences close to Riz Ahmed's deaf drummer in Sound of Metal and Heder employs the technique here, sparingly but very effectively. Her direction, as part of a collaborative team both deaf and hearing, shows strength and understanding and a keen comedic eye.