Sian Heder’s movie CODA has drawn major critical praise and awards, and its resonant ending is a major reason why. The coming-of-age film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a Deaf fishing family. Ruby’s need to support her family comes into conflict with her desire to pursue her musical passion, leading to an emotional ending.
After objecting to the need to pay for their own inspectors, Ruby’s father Frank and brother Leo leave their employer to start their own fishing company. Without the money to hire a hearing employee, they rely on Ruby for interacting with the outside world. This causes Ruby’s attendance at her choir practices to suffer, jeopardizing her goal of getting into Berklee Music Academy. After her absence on the boat leads to legal trouble, Ruby decides to stay with her family instead of going to college.
Like Lulu Wang’s film The Farewell, CODA was a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival, winning four awards. Critics also liked the film, with CODA receiving a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 74 on Metacritic. AppleTV+ acquired CODA for a Sundance record-breaking $25 million and began streaming it on August 13. The movie’s affecting ending could be one of the major reasons it received such a positive reception.
CODA has also been the subject of discussion for its depiction of Deaf characters. The title is an abbreviation for “Child of Deaf Adults,” a term often used in Deaf culture, and all of Ruby’s family members are played by Deaf actors. Like the Riz Ahmed-starring Sound of Metal, CODA features a grounded and sympathetic portrayal of Deaf culture. However, some Deaf commentators like Jenna Beacom have criticized the film for relying on the narrative of disabled people being a burden on their family members. It is this narrative that creates much of the tension in CODA leading to its conclusion.
As CODA enters its final act, Ruby seems resigned to helping her family with their fishing business for the foreseeable future. However, her family is struck by watching her perform at the choir’s recital, where she is showcased in a duet with her love interest Miles. The choir plotline hits similar notes to “singing teenagers” stories like Glee and High School Musical, with the former even being name-checked, but has a more down-to-earth atmosphere.
Leo ultimately encourages his sister to go to Berklee so that she will have a chance to pursue her passion. He is ultimately willing to sacrifice the security of having a readily available interpreter and engage more with the hearing world in order to provide his sister with an opportunity. The siblings’ father Frank also comes around to this position, “listening” to Ruby sing by feeling her throat. Ruby’s family rejects her sacrifice and drives her to the audition, despite her being unprepared.
Ruby arrives at the Berklee audition without fancy clothes or sheet music, a marked contrast to the more well-heeled auditioners around her. She sings “Both Sides Now”, a song first recorded by Joni Mitchell that has famously been used in Love, Actually during a crucial Emma Thompson scene as well as in the sixth-season finale of Mad Men. Ruby is shown practicing the song throughout CODA, and nails it in the audition.
The choice of “Both Sides Now” also has symbolic meaning for Ruby’s character arc. The narrator of the song describes seeing both the positive and negative sides of clouds, which are symbolic of the troubles and difficulties that come with life — hence the change in the concluding chorus to “I’m seeing life from both sides now.” In CODA, these “clouds” represent the difficulties faced by Ruby as the child of Deaf parents. But because of the support her family has given her, Ruby is able to see that her situation also has a positive side.
Like Switched at Birth, CODA uses American Sign Language frequently as its Deaf characters communicate with each other and their loved ones, and the movie ends on one final sign. Ruby gets into Berklee and celebrates with her teacher and family. This involves moving away from home. She has a tearful farewell with the rest of her family and, as she is driving away, returns a sign that they are already giving her.
The sign Ruby makes means “I love you“, combining the ASL symbols for I, L, and Y. The symbol is used in both romantic and platonic contexts and has become a supportive symbol of Deaf culture. Similar to fellow AppleTV+ title Ted Lasso, CODA leaves the viewer with positive emotion, with Ruby reaffirming her connection with her family even as she moves on to the next stage in her life. Ruby crosses her middle finger over when making the sign, adding a unique intensifier to the message.
CODA is a coming-of-age story that is about the necessity of breaking the bonds of codependency that can exist in a family. Despite being initially nervous about singing, Ruby feels a need to go to Berklee to become more than an assistant and interpreter to her parents and brother. Her parents and brother are faced with the task of re-learning how to communicate with the outside world.
Deaf culture and issues are becoming more prominent in American culture, with the upcoming Hawkeye and Echo Marvel series set to deal with Deafness and disability. CODA contributes to this ongoing conversation by providing a candid and grounded depiction of a Deaf family and the strain that living in an inaccessible world places on them. The film highlights how interpretation can often be inaccessible to working-class Deaf people, and that this can create ripple effects on the people in their lives. Much is left unresolved at the end of CODA. It still seems shaky whether the Rossis’ fishing business will survive, or whether Ruby’s relationship with Miles, who didn’t get into Berklee, will last. But this uncertainty is the point: Ruby cannot wait for the perfect situation to leave her family; she has to take a chance and follow her own path.