When a movie respects deaf people, it’s uplifting.
The title “CODA” stands for “Child of Deaf Adult,” which means that the main heroine Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only girl in her family to hear. That’s why she joins choir practice. That’s the set-up for this emotional and honest drama thats shows respect for the hard-of-hearing, in the recent spirit of “A Quiet Place,” “Wonderstruck,” and “Sound of Metal.” When you cast deaf actors in deaf roles, like in this case Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, and Troy Kotsur, you have nothing but the utmost respect for these particularly disabled people.
“CODA” is a remake of the French film “La Famille Belier,” which had hearing actors portraying deaf people. Writer/director Sian Heder fixes that issue, and provides us with vivid characters who don’t succumb to the disability, but manage to overcome the obstacles, with some help from Ruby the interpreter, of course. I didn’t know what to expect, and I’m glad I found out.
Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Ruby works with her older brother Leo (Durant) and father Frank (Kotsur) on their fishing boat every morning at 3am. Since their business is threatened by the people who pay cheap for their fish and order them to have their boat under surveillance (at the price of $800), they decide to handle the business by selling the fish themselves. And despite their shared disability, they both have a thing for music, because they love the beats. I’m not deaf, so I can never fully understand how they would, but seeing them being happy to enjoy it makes me feel good.
The only people who are a bit cynical with Ruby’s music passion is her flamboyant and strict music teacher Bernardo Vilalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who thinks she’s not really committed to the melody when she’s late for their lessons, and her mother Jackie (Matlin), who obviously can’t hear that she has a voice, and believes she’ll fail. Both of them think she’ll fail, until she changes their perspectives.
There’s also a romance between Ruby and her music partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), which starts off meandering, because of a stupid mistake of his, which humiliated the girl, but still allows them to connect afterwards. And there are moments when she tells her family she can’t always be their interpreter, especially since she has a dream of going to music school, and even they acknowledge that.
“CODA” is a movie that loves its characters, and cares about them as human beings. As Durant said via Twitter and Instagram: “We’re not deaf actors-we’re actors, period.” Seeing them commit to their characters and their issues, and how they learn to adjust to their surroundings is quite essential. And even if Ruby’s family is deaf and she isn’t, they still must abide by the rules of a melodrama: they have to have arguments, joys, and sentimental values, and they must stick together and support one another.
Jones, whose credits include “High Rise” and “Youth,” is a natural actress who portrays the main heroine with courage and passion. Derbez is able to break away from his comedy work, and expand his horizons by portraying a music teacher who knows ambition. And the deaf actors-Matlin, Durant, and Kotsur-are all equally excellent with their character’s different perspectives.
There are some funny moments, but mostly, there are uplifting and beautiful moments that aren’t afraid to speak their minds. Using hand gestures and signals is as effective as speaking. After all, action speaks louder than words. “CODA” knows the circumstances, and thanks to Heder’s direction and narrative, it’s brave for telling its story. And out of respect for the hard-of-hearing, I’m told this is the first feature to feature burned in subtitles. Even if there are talking characters, subtitles are still provided. It helps.
In Select Theaters and Streaming on AppleTV+ This Friday