A solid feel-good movie, CODA has charmed the public and critics alike while fostering a larger discussion on the inclusivity of deaf people in a hearing-centric world.
A remake of the equally moving 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, this rendition tells the story of Ruby, a 17-year-old girl living in a Massachusetts town who happens to be the only hearing member of her family. On top of attending high-school and working at the family’s fishing boat, Ruby has the responsibility of helping them communicate in a world that tends to exclude the hard of hearing.
When Ruby joins the school choir and discovers her natural talent for singing, she will have to choose whether or not to follow a path that could take her away from her family duties, to pursue a passion they could never fully appreciate. CODA, the acronym for Children of Deaf Adults, is also the name for a type of passage in musical pieces, nodding to the protagonist’s calling.
Reviews of the movie have been mixed. While it has been described as a “tender, lively, funny, and beautifully stirring drama” by Variety, it has also been called a “predictable tale of virtue rewarded” by The New Yorker. However, critics have coincided in their acclaim for the main actors.
While Emilia Jones does a wonderful job as Ruby, the attention has understandably centered on the fact that three out of the four main actors in the movie are deaf. Daniel Durant plays Leo, the brother, and the veteran actors Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur play Jackie and Frank, the parents.
Deaf characters are in fact often portrayed by hearing actors, but both Siân Heder, the director of the film, and Marlee Matlin fought against this trend, advancing Reduced Inequality, one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. “I trust that CODA, now that it's out, studios will look at this and see a successful model and receive us more openly than ever,” Matlin remarks.
In 1986, Marlee Matlin became the first (and so far only) deaf actor to be nominated and win an Oscar for her performance in the film Children of a Lesser God. Now, Troy Kotsur is the one gathering multiple accolades, becoming the first deaf male actor to be nominated for an Academy Award.
CODA — as well as 2020’s Sound of Metal — explores another version of the deaf experience. In this case, it’s from the perspective of someone who acts as an interpreter between the hearing and deaf worlds.
“CODA was an opportunity to portray to the general public what a CODA could go through,” Kotsur explains.
There are certainly more stories to be told that deal specifically with the deaf experience. However, a higher presence of deaf actors in non-deaf-specific roles is the ultimate goal. “It’s so important to not think of deaf actors from a perspective of limitations, because as a deaf person, I can drive, I can cook, I can have sex, I can do all of these things. The only thing where there’s a barrier is a communication barrier, and that’s it,” Kotsur declares.
Communication — in any of its forms — is essential to society. According to the World Federation of the Deaf, there are more than 70 million deaf people around the world who use more than 200 different sign languages. The more we learn to see deafness as a physical trait rather than a disability, the more we will be able to become a deaf-inclusive society.
“I’m so glad that they recognized me — not because I’m deaf but because I’m a talented actor.” Kotsur remarks. Art is about sharing stories, and movies like CODA remind us that there is more than one way to tell them.
CODA is available for streaming on Apple TV+.