CODA doesn’t have the dramatic heft of Children of a Lesser God (for which deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award), or the grittier themes of Oscar nominee Sound of Metal, but I totally get why it won the Grand Jury Prize, Best Director, Ensemble Acting, and Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year. It’s a sweet and moving crowdpleaser that proves it’s not just possible, but powerful to cast deaf actors in lead roles – and be all the better for it.
The film stars Emilia Jones as 17-year-old Ruby, a CODA (child of deaf adults) who is the only hearing person in her family. As such, she’s spent her life playing ‘interpreter’ for her deaf parents (Marlee Matlin, Tony Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant). That means getting up before the crack of dawn to pitch in with the family’s floundering fishing business, and then heading off to school, where she stretches herself even more thin by joining the school choir. Ruby’s got a passion for singing, a major crush on her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and a real shot at getting into a prestigious music college in Boston. But she’s finding it harder and harder to reconcile her family obligations with her musical ambitions. Her tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) expects her to make the necessary sacrifices to pursue her dreams, while her parents don’t understand how singing could possibly be more important than family. And they need her help to survive the day-to-day in their hearing, blue-collar community. Or do they?
There are no villains here. Just competing obligations and the complicated push and pull of family love and sacrifice. CODA scores for its heartfelt messages and authentic representation – not just with the use of deaf actors and American Sign Language (ASL), but through the genuine family dynamic that is totally relatable to hearing and deaf audiences alike. They bicker. They bond. Mom and Dad still have the hots for each other. Brother is obsessed with his Tinder app.
CODA is an English-language remake of a 2014 French dramedy called La Famille Belier about a farming family. For CODA, writer/director Sian Heder (Tallulah) changed the family business to fishing and shot the film on location in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
CODA will be screened and streamed with open captions so the deaf community can watch without any special equipment. CODA opens in theaters and starts streaming on Apple TV+ on August 13. Whether you watch in a theater or at home, keep the tissues handy for the feel-good ending.