When Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) sings, she gets a good feeling. Sorting through the daily catch aboard her family’s fishing boat in Massachusetts, the 17-year-old high school student croons Etta James’s classic Something’s Gotta Hold on Me with unselfconscious abandon. She squeezes her eyes shut, a groove gripping her shoulders. Her voice is striking and lovely, not that her dad, Frank (a wonderful, drily funny Troy Kotsur), or older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), seem to pay it any attention. The film soon reveals it’s not that they haven’t noticed – it’s that they haven’t heard.
This US remake of the 2014 French comedy-drama La Famille Bélier, about the hearing daughter of deaf parents who secretly dreams of becoming a singer, was a smash hit at this year’s Sundance film festival, winning a record-breaking $25m distribution deal with Apple TV+ as well as four of the festival’s top awards. It’s not hard to see why: it’s warm, fuzzy and feelgood, taking a timeless coming-of-age tale and braiding it with a timely political agenda. Writer-director (Tallulah) takes great care to increase and improve the long-overdue representation of the deaf community on screen, casting deaf actors in deaf roles (a responsibility the original film neglected).
Ruby is a Coda – a hearing child of deaf adults – and as her brother is also deaf, she serves as the whole family’s unofficial interpreter, translating their American Sign Language (ASL) to both the local fishing community and the meddling authorities. It’s a full-time commitment that competes with her schoolwork, her social life and, now, choir practice, which she signs up for on a whim. Her music teacher, Bernardo “Mr V” Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez, straining for inspirational cuddliness), takes note of her forthright talent as well as her faltering confidence, insisting she work towards auditioning for Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Equipped with an endless supply of motivational quotes and quirky cardigans, he prescribes her breathing exercises and a duet with – eek! – her crush, Miles (Sing Street star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
The two are to perform Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Motown hit You’re All I Need to Get By at the school concert, an excuse for them to practise a cappella in Ruby’s cramped bedroom. If this sounds worryingly like an episode of the shrill teen TV show Glee, mercifully it couldn’t be less like it. Heder chooses not to structure the film as a series of showy musical numbers. Instead, scenes in which we hear Ruby sing, including one where she reluctantly, then ferociously, belts out Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, are grounded in emotion, not spectacle.
“If I was blind, would it make you want to paint?” needles Ruby’s mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), a former pageant queen struggling, for various reasons, to connect with her daughter. She asks the question with a whisker of resentment. The deaf actor gives a complex performance in a juicy role, her most high-profile since her landmark Oscar win for Children of a Lesser God in 1987. Frustrated by Ruby’s obsession with music, Jackie bans headphones at the dinner table. Swiping through son Leo’s Tinder prospects is permitted, however, as “something we can all do as a family”. Unlike the shy, responsible Ruby, her brother and her parents are in frequent pursuit of their own pleasure, something the film has a tendency to temper by playing for laughs. When she and Miles accidentally overhear her parents in the bedroom, Frank sits them down for a cringe-inducing conversation about safe sex. Miles learns the hard way what the ASL for “put a helmet on that, soldier” is. The Gallic humour of the original film feels playfully raunchy when translated to an American context.
Moments such as this define the deaf members of the Rossi family – their humour, their politics, their parenting, their desires. A wasted opportunity, then, that the film, as with the original, filters their experiences through an able-bodied protagonist. Heder mostly gets around this by dazzling the audience with Ruby’s tender, go-for-broke sincerity. To her credit, British actor Jones is pretty much note-perfect. Her singing voice has a wistful, lilting quality infused with longing and a little loneliness. It’s the film’s secret weapon, expertly deployed in one final number that sees her serenade her father beneath the stars. The film is a meticulously, perhaps even cynically crafted crowd-pleaser. Even those alive to its tactics might find themselves wiping away a tear or two.