CODA, written and directed by Sian Heder, is a beautiful, heartwarming coming-of-age film with a happy ending. Not all difficult stories of trying to have your own life in the face of someone who needs you (read: your parents) end with so much understanding, acceptance, and support. It’s hard to break away and be yourself when there are demands, a sense of obligation, and the fear that your leaving home is hurting them. Many people live with guilt and no real life of their own well into adulthood, never feeling entitled to be themselves. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is one of the lucky ones.
Ruby is the child of deaf adults (CODA). And, she’s the only hearing member in a deaf family who makes their living with fresh catch, on a fishing boat. It’s hard to be different and awkward amongst kids your age when you haven’t learned to talk to people.
Yet, it’s especially difficult to be so different from the rest of your family (Mom played by Marlee Matlin and Dad played by Troy Kotsur,) when even your older brother (Daniel Durant) is deaf. You’re the outlier. Plus, you SING. Loudly for only yourself.
You have this great voice that you don’t even know is great. Because the people most important to you can’t hear you (not only how you sing, but what you want just for yourself.)
And, not only that either. They can’t hear the Coast Guard signals on the radio, so they don’t know if they’re in danger on the sea. Or breaking rules. That is unless YOU are there. So, really, how can you even think about having a life of your own?
What If They Really Need You – Or Do They?
It can seem like they really need you. In fact, it’s impossible to question that when they’ve relied on you your whole life. That’s Ruby’s situation, it might be yours. Parents who are helpless to do so many things on their own. They count on you emotionally too.
Ruby’s family needs her to interpret for them. It’s real. They can’t hear. And, they don’t feel accepted in the community of other fishermen or wives. They’re sure they’re looked down upon, misunderstood, and so they stay loners. Family is their entire life.
Ruby’s parents are as scared of other fishermen as Ruby is of the other kids at school. She tries to hide and has only one friend. Or runs away fast, if she’s afraid of not being good enough when she auditions for the choir. And, when she thinks she’s being shamed by Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). It’s that she feels so different, certain she won’t be liked for who she is.
It’s hard to break away from what you know is safe. You might truly believe you can’t. Ruby struggles. She’s scared for many reasons. We later see that her family isn’t as helpless or needy as they seem. Her brother is capable, her parents are too, once they start believing they have something people want (a coop business to sell their own fish).
That’s what Ruby has to do too. And, she takes her first big, scary step. She must choose an elective and decides on choir because she loves to sing. And, even though she runs away at first – she meets someone who wants to help. Someone who really sees her.
What Happens if Someone Really Sees You?
Yes, Ruby runs away, but she doesn’t get too far. Her choir teacher, Mr. Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) reaches out. He’s a tough guy on the surface (so is Ruby) but inside they’re both soft and caring. He wants to help. Especially when he sees what Ruby can’t see in herself (and that’s a gift if you get it). She’s really good. She has talent.
Mr. Villalobos doesn’t make it easy on her – but in a different way than Ruby’s parents. He expects her to work hard to be who she is and to develop her potential. In fact, he wants her to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music. (Uh oh, that means leaving her parents.) And, he insists that she take this seriously and show up (on time.)
Can she, do it? That means making her own life a priority over her parent’s needs. That’s no easy “ask” when it comes to saying “No,” to Mom and Dad. Because, when she does, they get into big trouble with the Coast Guard and lose their license to fish.
Ruby’s own guilt along with their guilt-inducing pleading (they can’t do it without her, she can’t leave them) makes her suck it up and give up on her dream.
After all, how can she be responsible for people she loves getting hurt or failing? As hard as it is for a kid to have so much on her shoulders, she just can’t let them down.
If It’s Hard to Break Away Don’t Give Up
It’s hard to break away from a needy or demanding family. We see what Ruby goes through (and maybe she has a more understanding family than some). She does manage to find her way. No, sometimes it’s not so easy, and you might be a lot older than Ruby, still fighting inside yourself for that “right” to go your own way. Don’t give up.
Ruby, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones. Her parents don’t want to let her down either, they just don’t yet understand. They do try. Some parents can’t. Even though they can’t hear, they go to her school concert, and “get” that she has something special.
Her dad, in a touching scene, has Ruby sing “You are all I need to get by,” the song she sang with Miles. He puts his hands on her vocal cords, so he can feel the song. Yet, even if your parents don’t try to understand, you are entitled to your own life.
You’re Entitled to Your Own Life, You Know
Yes, you are, you know. Or maybe you don’t. Since, how can you feel entitled if you’ve been told that you “should,” or even must, live by the family rules and expectations (as in The Big Sick). Or if you’ve been made to feel responsible for your parents (that they can’t possibly live without you,) that makes it really, really hard.
It’s easiest if you have parents like Ruby’s who try to understand, face their own fears, and decide that it will be a “family thing” to send you off to college (or into your own life.) And, during her audition at Berklee College, when she sings Both Sides Now, signing the words for them (sitting up in the balcony), they do see: there are two sides.
Remember this, though: there may be your side and your parents’ side. But that doesn’t mean their side “wins” over yours. In fact, quite the opposite. You can understand their feelings, give what you can – but it isn’t up to you to sacrifice yourself. No kid should have to do that.
So, if you haven’t done it yet, now’s the time. Take back your life. It belongs to you.