Siân Heder’s Sundance-winning family drama hilariously and honestly captures the lives of Children of Deaf Adults
To be a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) is to be perpetually aware of your role in both your Deaf family and Hearing society 24/7. The ability to hear is a sense that Hearing people take for granted and one that Deaf people thrive without. For a CODA, it feels both like a superpower that everyone else has and a gig you never asked for. Growing up, both of my parents never saw their Deafness as a disability and refused to let others do so. They’d either read lips and verbalize responses or write out communication on paper or electronically, among other ways. My Dad in DC worked a Government job while my Mom in Austin was a College counselor. They were incredibly successful and damn good at what they did. But I still remember jumping into adult conversations from an early age, whether I was asked or compelled to. Be it at the grocery store, the DMV, or the doctor’s office, I knew jumping into interpreter mode would ensure everything anyone wanted would be communicated accurately and effectively. I could break down that Deaf/Hearing barrier by turning myself into a bridge — using my powers for Good, if you will.
Being a CODA also means being proud of being a part of your Deaf family from birth. From the moment you learn to talk, you know the weight of each word because each one is communicated with specific, charged, electric emotion. You learn how to interpret your own feelings as you interpret your family’s for others. And you know, after people’s attempts to shout responses back, to struggle to provide the bare minimum of any kind of experience that may require a little bit of assistance, or moments where your parents’ concerns are dismissed outright, that your family knows how to fight back against ignorance and prejudice. That they’ve learned to adapt to a world that often refuses to adapt to them. That even if you weren’t a bridge for them, they’d know how to make the crossing without you. But even still, you interpret for them because that’s what it means to take care of your family. You’re there for them when the world isn’t.
Siân Heder’s CODA is Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a Gloucester, Massachusetts High School Senior whose waking life is split between the pressures of her final year and helping her Deaf family (Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and Marlee Matlin) aboard their struggling fishing boat. As the sole Hearing person in her family, Ruby doesn’t just answer the Coast Guard while her family fishes — she’s also responsible for interpreting her parents’ awkward doctor visits for jock itch and haggling with their fishery broker to ensure their catch earns just as much as other Hearing-crewed boats. Ruby’s life changes when she follows her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) into the school choir–and she realizes her own gift for singing. Her teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), encourages her to pursue her passion into college–but to do so means abandoning her role as the family interpreter, and potentially setting her family adrift in an oblivious and dangerous Hearing-oriented world.
With her film, Siân Heder deftly unites crucial and moving insights on Deafness, family dynamics, and the pursuit of one’s passions without forcing any of these subjects to take a backseat to one another. With Heder’s screenplay brought to life by a wildly talented Deaf and Hearing cast, each moment in CODA is as hilarious and heart-wrenching as the last. CODA seizes each opportunity that arises to document something painfully honest about the Deaf and CODA experience in ways that are both accessible and entertaining for both Deaf and Hearing audiences.
While the multi-award-winning favorite of this year’s Sundance Film Festival may share some familiar “indie film” tropes like comically dysfunctional families or the awkward angst of adolescent strife, CODA uses these hallmarks as a common cinematic language to help give deeper insight into a world most Hearing audiences are frankly unaware of. Every cringe-inducing moment for Ruby with her family is rooted in so much hilarious specificity: from her Dad’s love of blaring gangster rap for the bass, to how difficult it can be to get anything quiet done in a house full of people unaware of how much noise they make, to the sudden appearance of noises from a bedroom while friends are over.
There are also liberating and wholesome moments, from a flirtatious exchange of text messages that naturally bring Ruby’s brother Leo and Ruby’s friend Gertie closer together in physical proximity, to Ruby bringing her father Frank’s hands to her throat so he can feel the vibrations of her singing. There’s deep, stomach-churning moments of anxiety, like missing crucial moments of signing while interpreting due to personal crisis, to Ruby’s mother Jackie’s bitter resignation that she won’t connect with the other Hearing women at their fledgling Fish Co-Op as she does with her Deaf friends, or an unintentional clash with local authorities that quickly goes South due to a breakdown in communication. While Ruby and her Deaf family repeatedly find themselves in situations where Deaf and Hearing people come into conflict, the crucial point CODA makes is that Deafness itself is never the problem.
Each of the Rossis takes immense pride in being Deaf, and never see it as a part of themselves that must be overcome or dealt with. They participate in local government, get out into the dating pool (often Tinder-swiping as a family!), and (as taxing as it can be) they run a successful family business. Most of CODA’s pointed criticisms are instead towards a society that views the Rossis as anything but capable–and one that directly creates the toxic family role of a necessary interpreter that is thrust upon Ruby as the Rossis’ sole CODA. As Leo says to Ruby late in the film, they’re never helpless. Rather, the Rossis (and much of the Deaf community at large) are stuck in the exhausting position of having to prove themselves at each turn to be seen as able as everyone else. Everyone in the Rossi family–from Ruby’s dreams of pursuing singing professionally to Leo’s search for love to Jackie and Frank’s debate of breaking out and starting the Co-Op–has it in them to follow their individual passions, but they must first defy everyone’s expectations of what they can do. CODA’s a film that finally shifts well-intentioned but misguided cinematic narratives about Deafness away from overcoming a disability to overcoming society’s expectations of those who are Deaf. It’s a striking and mature validation of the CODA and Deaf experience.
The craft behind CODA proves equally validating. Paula Huidoboro’s cinematography and Geraud Brisson’s editing are perpetually conscious to keep the actors’ hands in-frame to convey dialogue as clearly as possible–while also leaving room for where subtitles will be placed within a given shot. There are moments where characters’ lines step on one another like any frantic dialogue exchange–but there’s never a moment where the subtitles to interpret dialogue come into visual conflict with the way that actual dialogue is expressed by the Deaf actors. That careful attention renders CODA just as accessible to a Deaf audience as a Hearing one–equally prioritizing both when it comes to accessibility.
One of CODA’s four Sundance awards was for the film’s ensemble cast–all of whom play their parts to perfection. While the Rossis may be majority Deaf, and each of them is fiercely independent and headstrong, writer-director Heder and her cast all ensure their characters don’t have a homogenous take on what it’s like to grow up in a Deaf family. Troy Kotsur’s Frank is old-school and is content to just get by, while Daniel Durant pushes for change so he can finally get fair pay for his work. Marlee Matlin’s Jackie knows there’s more to herself than her Deafness or being a mother. She’s a former beauty pageant winner, and absolutely seizes her own body positivity and agency in her relationship with Frank–but that carefully crafted persona comes crashing down at the thought of being that naturally confident person among Hearing people. Eugenio Derbez shines as an equally tough-as-nails mirror to Jackie as Mr. Villalobos, imbuing the typical surrogate parent/teacher role with a comic frustration that serves as fuel to Ruby’s fire. Think J.K. Simmons’ Whiplash instructor, but whose words are just as incisive and inspiring as any thrown cymbal. The true star, though, is Emilia Jones. She exquisitely captures the nature of being quick-on-your-feet to interpret at all times, to immediately sub out one’s personality for whoever you’re interpreting for while being a teenager who keeps their own feelings tightly bottled up. While not a CODA herself, careful instruction by the film’s sizable team of interpreters and Deaf culture consultants has paid off. Jones captures both how expressive and understated ASL is by nature, and makes effortless switches between spoken and signed dialogue.
It’s just so refreshing and so damn important that there’s a film about Deafness that doesn’t depict it as a sensory albatross of a disability. With Deaf actors in Deaf roles, equitable access in terms of craft and storytelling, and a story that’s as moving as it is hysterical, CODA is a film that achieves its mission to make Deaf families and their hearing children feel seen and heard.
It is a bridge.
CODA hits theaters and AppleTV+ on August 13th courtesy of Apple. All theatrical screenings will be Open-Captioned to provide equitable access to Deaf and Hearing audiences.