At first glance, a coming-of-age story about the musical dreams of a Child of Deaf Adults (or a CODA) seems like it might background its disabled characters — much like the film on which it was based, the 2014 French comedy La Famille Bélier, which drew criticism for casting hearing actors in key deaf roles. However, writer-director Sian Heder makes vast improvements over the original, thanks in no small part to her deaf collaborators, Alexandria Wailes and Anne Tomasetti, and a deaf supporting cast. While CODA certainly explores deafness and Deaf culture from a hearing point of view — responses from the Deaf community have varied from positive to critical — the film relies neither on pity nor patronizing inspiration-porn for its most moving moments. As much as the film is about a culture clash along the lines of disability, it’s just as much a story of a fishing family and the hurdles they face as members of Massachusetts’ working class. Each performance breathes life and nuance into what could easily have been a misfire. Instead, the result is tremendously sweet, uproariously funny and one of the best crowd-pleasers this year.
English actress Emilia Jones plays Ruby Rossi, a hearing girl who’s reserved around her high school classmates, but who sings loudly and signs boisterously around her goofy, easygoing father, Frank (Troy Kostur), and her sarcastic, headstrong brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) on their rickety fishing vessel. She’s just as expressive at home, though a tad less open about her love for music with her overbearing mother Jackiee (Marlee Matlin, the first and thus far only deaf performer to win an Academy Award), who helps with the sales side of the family business, and whose aversion to hearing culture and people stems from insecurities the film goes on to tenderly explore.
Ruby, in addition to working on the family’s boat, is also their interpreter (and by proxy, their negotiator at the pier), a necessity in a small town that makes little effort to accommodate them. The Rossis have a comfortable working rhythm, though this is slowly thrown off course when Ruby finds herself spread thin between her early-morning trawling and her new passion for the school choir. She’s an exceptional singer — her strict teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) thinks she has what it takes to audition for Berklee — but her family commitments could very well complicate that journey.
CODA hardly aims to surprise you with its plot — it is, after all, a remake of a fairly bland and straightforward film — but its unique delights lie in the way it captures its characters, both individually and in groups. Ruby, though she has no trouble exchanging barbs and petty insults with Leo, hides beneath layers of baggy clothes and a fringe cut at school. Where the original film treated music solely as a clash with deafness (and in the process, treated its deaf characters as a monolith), CODA frames it more as a clash with Ruby’s responsibilities, and with her desire to stay out of sight, which in turn stems from the nasty words hurled at her family, to which only she is privy.
Her family members all have varying opinions on her talents too, which are tied intrinsically to their individual lives outside of her. Leo is immediately and unequivocally supportive of her dreams, in part because of his brotherly duty, though he also hopes to prove himself, without her help, to a world that looks down at him. For Leo, Ruby going off to college would be a win-win, even if he hasn’t quite thought things through. The brother role in La Famille Bélier, while the only major part played by a deaf actor, was barely a blip, but CODA allows Daniel Durant plenty of time to simmer as a withheld-but-caring twenty something from the American Northeast, with all the hyper-masculine baggage that entails. His portrayal is always enticing, even when he keeps to himself.
As Jackiee, Marlee Matlin turns in an incredibly fun performance that conceals layers of maternal anxieties. Jackie is upbeat and personable when she signs, but her defensiveness, when dealing with the prospect of Ruby going to college, often comes off as terse. When she finally begins to confront what’s bothering her, this usually takes the form of glances during isolated moments, wherein Matlin allows Jackiee’s smile to drop, and allows her self-doubt to float to the surface, before she covers it up again. Exploring traditional gender roles as they intersect with disability is by no means an explicit focus (see also: Leo’s constant need to prove himself) but a few of Jackiee’s lines hint at her use of dresses and makeup as means to cope, or blend in, with a world in which she doesn’t feel at ease. Ruby, by contrast, carries herself with a certain (tom)boyishness, and though she’s into a boy at school — her duet partner, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) — she bristles against the feminine norms her mother indulges in and nudges her towards. The film is keenly aware of the relationship between people and their bodies, and it doesn’t limit this focus to their deafness or hearing.
While Leo and Jackie stand on opposite sides of the “Should Ruby go to college?” question, Frank ends up caught somewhere in the middle. Not because he’s undecided, but because his practical thinking leads to different answers depending on the situation — which changes frequently, as he and his fellow fishermen are placed under increasing financial stress by local management (the film has a wonderfully rebellious subplot about cooperative organizing, in the face of an uncaring capitalist system that harms its workers, and harms disabled workers even more). Unlike his wife and children, Frank has grown comfortable being isolated from the rest of the town, perhaps reluctantly, but this by no means prevents him from having fun when it’s just the four of them, or from trying to embarrass Ruby for a laugh. One bit in particular, involving how he treats a boy she brings over, is downright side-splitting. Troy Kostur is a firecracker as Frank, delivering line after line of raunchy, hilarious banter with animated fervor, though he lets the character’s warmth peak out from beneath his zany antics.
When the Rossis are together, their dynamic can get wheeze-inducingly funny. For instance, when they decide to turn Leo’s Tinder-swiping into a family activity; unlike many mainstream depictions of disabled characters, the film has no qualms about putting their respective sex lives on full display. At the risk of beating a dead horse, CODA far outshines La Famille Bélier during group scenes in particular — partially because the joke isn’t on deafness, but on the quirks of human behaviour, and partially because the parent characters are actually played by deaf actors this time around, and they bring a sense of comfort and familiarity to every scene. In Bélier, the parents felt as if they’d only just begun navigating deafness in the last few days. Their existence as Deaf people in a hearing world, and their subsequent reliance on their hearing daughter, barely factored into the original story. CODA, by comparison, has much more tangible stakes and a sense of narrative urgency.
It also helps that CODA treats sign language — in this case, American Sign Language, which makes up half the dialogue — as an actual language (and as Ruby’s first language, which she returns to when she can’t express something in spoken words). Like any dialect, ASL has its own ebb and flow along with its own cultural hallmarks, rather than being a series of lurching, desperate gestures, as is sometimes the case when deaf characters are played by hearing performers who treat the language itself as a hurdle or disability.
This care for sign language is reflected in the filmmaking too. In modern cinema, the conventions of framing and editing have become incredibly sound-centric, especially during dialogue scenes. Who or what the camera focuses on, and which shots the editor cuts to (and when) are often determined by who’s speaking, or by what words are being spoken. A rote dialogue scene will divvy up its shot coverage line by line, though a more thoughtful one might hold on reactions to someone else’s words. ASL doesn’t have the luxury of being heard from off-screen, but rather than shooting dialogue mechanically and simply cutting between lines, Heder, cinematographer Paula Huidobro and editor Geraud Brisson often ensure that multiple speakers are visible in the frame, and that they’re blocked with their hands in view (or at least, their bodily responses). In the process, scenes of dinner table banter feel lively and animated, though a sharp contrast emerges when the family isn’t on speaking terms, as the screen falls eerily still.
Outside of these scenes, the film remains adept at capturing small-town isolation, and the way it becomes exacerbated when one is pushed into the margins. Where Bélier zipped forward from scene to scene, CODA pauses to consider. It holds on characters at their most vulnerable, either when someone else has just left the room or they themselves have recently exited a conversation, as if the camera were capturing fleeting afterthoughts. The film’s in-scene transitions are measured too; for instance, it uses the familiar trick of sound fading out to shift into a deaf POV only once (during an emotionally charged moment), but since the film is about deafness, it doesn’t rely on sound alone to convey this transition. Rather, it accompanies the shift with a skillfully timed rack focus; sound may be a major part of CODA, but the film is, thankfully, not as aesthetically distancing to deaf and hard of hearing viewers as some similar works have been (it also helps that every theatrical screening of the film will have captions by default).
Cinema has a tendency to build Deaf/HoH narratives around music — recent hits like Creed, Baby Driver, Sound of Metal and A Star is Born come to mind, three of which capture hearing people’s fears of disability — though a wider variety of portrayals is slowly beginning to emerge. Mainstream genre films like Godzilla vs. Kong and A Quiet Place were lauded for their efforts to cast deaf actors in deaf roles. It’s a distinction shared by CODA, and one that ought to be the bare minimum for disability narratives, though it’s one that Marlee Matlin still had to fight for.
However, as much CODA is a film about a hearing person’s relationship to deafness and Deaf culture, it’s just as much about deaf characters’ relationships to a hearing world, whose norms most hearing people take for granted, and whose obstacles can impact everything from labor to self-worth.
CODA is no exception to the aforementioned musical focus, given both its plot and its frequent use of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.” However, the film frames music not just as a sensory pleasure, but as an expression of need, a theme which radiates outward and takes shape even in its non-musical subplots. The song’s lyrics, as Ruby explains them, are about what it means to need other people, a complicated question that ripples through the fabric of CODA and impacts every single character, whether those needs are logistical, physical or emotional, or some combination of the three. It’s a wholesome film — holistically so.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.
CODA is available to stream on Apple TV+.