Over the almost one hundred years featuring the deaf and hard of hearing, the first film that actually featured a deaf actor playing a person deaf or hard of hearing was not released until 1985, which Marlee Matlin (who is also featured in this film) made her debut performance as a deaf girl at a school for the deaf in New England. Later that year, she won an Academy Award for her performance. In the years since, only twenty-five other films have featured deaf or hard-of-hearing actors playing deaf or hard-of-hearing actors, of which there were only 12 deaf or hard-of-hearing actors playing deaf or hard-of-hearing characters. The other hundred or so films featured hearing actors playing deaf or hard-of-hearing characters, including some of my favorite films like Creed, A Star is Born, and Sound of Metal.
Now, I don’t say this to discourage hearing actors from playing deaf or hard-of-hearing characters. On the contrary, I think we need both hearing and deaf or hard-of-hearing actors. However, I am saying that a hearing actor taking that space reinforces studios to go with a hearing actor, who may misrepresent the deaf or hard-of-hearing experience and perpetuate a long-standing stigma around the deaf or hard-of-hearing community.
With CODA, director Siân Heder tells the story of Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is the only hearing member of her family. Before school, she helps her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) and father (Troy Kotsur) keep the family fishing business afloat. However, when she signs up for choir class, Ruby has to wrestle between her passion for her family and her passion for singing.
Without further ado, here’s my review of CODA, a film that I genuinely think people should see, regardless if they see it in theaters or on Apple TV+.
You know why God made farts smell? So deaf people could enjoy them too.Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi
If you haven’t heard of Siân Heder, she certainly makes a name for herself here to a mainstream audience. Her direction for CODA seems to be mainly for the cast to be authentic and trust that it’ll come across in the film. Heder also allows for quiet moments like when Ruby sings in the woods alone.
This authenticity is also felt in Heder’s screenplay, where she finds a lot of the humor, a heartfelt story about choosing between your family or your passion. The highlights for me were when Heder takes the time to switch whose eyes we’re experiencing the story through, like when we see Frank & Leo struggle to understand the other hearing fishermen.
We’re the deaf guys! They look at us like a joke.Troy Kotsur as Frank Rossi
But the greatest achievement of the screenplay is Heder selling the fact that the Rossis are a family that you could fool yourself into thinking walked onto the set, rather than being paid actors. These are people with invisible struggles that they keep bottled inside until they can’t anymore. Along the way, we see that Ruby unearths these struggles, roots and all. If she sings, will she lose her family? Could this family survive without Ruby? For about an hour, Heder breaks down these problems and puts them out into the open (tissues required). In one especially tear-jerking scene, all sound fades out while Ruby is signing her heart out during a choir concert, pulling us into what it’s like for the deaf or hard-of-hearing. In sharp contrast, there is another scene, sound isn’t a factor. Why? Because Heder takes the time to develop a shared language throughout the film, the viewer instantly recognizes and moved this reviewer to tears.
CODA is not without its lowlights. For starters, I didn’t particularly care for how much Heder leans into the “will they, won’t they?” drama between a fellow singer named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Not only is Miles not given any character other than the “hey, you’re awesome…I’m not…” trope. I understand that this is a coming-of-age movie, but I checked out mentally every time Miles appeared onscreen. CODA is Ruby’s film, not Miles’. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between Walsh-Peelo and Jones seems to be non-existent. Still, this misstep is relatively minor when you look at the film as a whole. For example, Heder spends a lot of time developing the character of Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who I genuinely felt served the story by pushing Ruby to be the best Ruby she can be. He gets great moments like a “little dog, big dog” exercise and a few moments towards the end of the film that I won’t spoil. Plus, Derbez is always a joy to watch onscreen, no matter how small the role.
Let’s see if you are an Alto, a Soprano, or just watched too many episodes of Glee.Eugenio Derbez as Bernardo Villalobos
Speaking of roles, this cast is excellent. Particularly Emilia Jones. I don’t know where Heder found her, but she has a beautiful singing voice and somehow is able to sign with very little mouthing. Another highlight is the real-life deaf actors Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant, which only helps to sell the authenticity.
A quick note on the cinematography, which I always love talking about: the film is full of vibrant colors and looks to be shot mostly from a tripod or some very stable gimbal. Props to the cinematographer, Paula Huidobro, for taking the time to assemble the gimbal for mobile shots. My stomach thanks you.
As one would expect, the music is top-notch. When we’re not listening to Emilia Jones’ singing voice, we’re greeted by all-time hits like “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” by Etta James, “I Fought The Law” by The Clash or the score by Marius de Vries, comprised of a beautiful mix of piano and string instruments.
Let them figure out how to talk to deaf people. We’re not helpless.Daniel Durant as Leo Rossi
CODA is a great first film from Heder. She’s picked an excellent cast and crew, with a superb screenplay and the directing ability to back it all up. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
CODA is now available to watch in theaters or on Apple TV+ (subscription required).
Until next time!