"I prayed that you would be deaf," a mom played by Marlee Matlin says in "CODA." "I was worried we wouldn't connect. I thought I would fail you."
In most ways, the crowd-pleasing "CODA" (the title is an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults) is a conventional film, but it introduces us to a culture that has not been explored much on-screen. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a high school student in a Massachusetts fishing village. In addition to school, where she joins a choir and discovers her love of singing, she helps her family — her mom, dad and brother all are deaf — with their fishing business. Ruby works hard at school and on the boat, and when her choir teacher encourages her to apply to music college, it leads to conflict.
There are a million movies about kids rebelling against the lives that their families want for them, but the winner of both the audience and jury prizes at the Sundance Film Festival feels fresh because it is so well performed, by a cast that includes Duluth actor Daniel Durant, and because its details feel so sharply observed. We might wish for a movie that centers a person who is deaf (baby steps, I guess) but "CODA's" depiction of Ruby as the outsider in her own family leads to plenty of rich, unexpected scenes.
Ruby's parents, for instance, can't understand her interest in music and have a hard time figuring out if she's any good. There's also the family business. Are the parents being selfish for expecting their daughter to help run it at the cost of her own dreams or is she bailing on them at a time when their business is endangered by climate change? Ruby's relationship with her big brother, who tells her, "Our family was fine before you were born," is especially compelling. In Durant's complex performance, we sense both that he resents Ruby on some level and that he is pushing her away because he knows she needs to pursue her dreams.
About those dreams. As truthful as most of "CODA" feels, almost everything that has to do with the music is awful. The score is syrupy and old-fashioned. The song choices are downright weird, including the choir director selecting Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" for his underage charges, thus turning a song that functions as a direct, sexual come-on into an invitation to an orgy. Also, since the teacher tells Ruby he likes unconventional voices such as Bob Dylan's because "American Idol" types are a dime a dozen, it makes no sense that he praises her voice, which is exactly the kind of blandly pretty ones he disparages.
All of those missteps are forgiven in writer/director Sian Heder's rousing finale, which features not one but two moving scenes that reveal how music can bring together people, even if they experience it in very different ways.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for language and rowdy sex scenes.
Theater: Apple TV; in theaters Aug. 20.