Released: August 13, 2021
Watched: March 11, 2022
Because Tinder is something we can all do as a family.— Jackie Rossi
CODA is a wonderfully warm and humorous film that peeks into life of a Deaf family.
CODA is an Americanized adaptation of La Famille Bélier, an 2014 French coming-of-age film about a hearing Child of Deaf Adult (CODA) who has to choose between pursuing her passion for music or supporting her family business.
I saw La Famille Bélier several years ago during a flight to Europe. I immediately perked when the description mentioned a Deaf family, and was eager to see French Sign Language (langue des signes française, or LSF). As I watched, I wanted to like it, but something felt off; it relied too much on cringe humor and making deafness the butt of many jokes. Very much “Ha Ha. Look at those silly Deaf farmers, not knowing how to fit into normal society!” After my vacation, I looked into the movie, and found out my gut feeling was right — many French Deaf people did not like the movie because hearing people who did not know sign language were cast to play the parents. They took a crash course in ASL for the film, but their signing was so unintelligible so Deaf people had to rely on subtitles.
Additional readings about La Famille Bélier:
CODA nearly met the same fate — after Marlee Matlin was casted to play the Deaf mother, the film’s financiers wanted to cast hearing actors to play the Deaf father and Deaf son. Matlin pushed back and threatened to drop out of the project. So the financiers relented and got out of the production’s way and allowed them to make their own movie.
And thank god they did.
CODA has an undeniable feeling of warm authenticity that warrants its many nominations, including Academy Award for Best Male Supporting Actor for Troy Kostur, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture, and winning the Screen Actors Guild Awards for both Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role and Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture (formerly won by Parasite in 2021!).
From a storytelling perspective, it’s a familiar coming of age story. My friend whom I watched the movie with said that the script reminded him of other films like Pitch Perfect, Juno, or LadyBird. What elevates the script above these familiar tropes is how it utilizes the Deaf/CODA experience, not as the butt of the joke thankfully, but as vantage point.
I loved how fully realized the Deaf family were. Too often, when a movie has a Deaf character, there’s no depth to their characterization beyond the Deafness. Here, every character has layers: Jackie (Marlee Matlin) is a former pageant queen using her self-centeredness to mask her own anxieties and insecurities; Frank (Troy Kostur) is a crusty, bawdy, skilled fisher, devoted father and madly in love with his wife; Leo (Daniel Durant) is a horny young adult struggling with gaining a sense of autonomy. They weren’t asexual moral people; they are flawed humans. I saw bits of myself in all of them.
CODA took what I’ve felt many times in my life and put it on the screen for everyone to see.
I appreciated that CODA showed those moments of internal insecurity and awkwardness. My social butterfly life is a running joke in my circle, but it took time to develop, honed after years of small intentional interactions. It’s easier to fake my way through social situations with a buddy to “clue” me in throughout the conversation. It’s easier to ask “hey, I missed that — mind repeating?” or “What are you/they talking about?” with individuals who understand I wouldn’t have heard the context. It’s a lot harder with strangers. Especially if you can’t detect a lull in the conversation or a topic change, so you’re just standing around on the fringes of conversation waiting. I have this irrational paranoia of cheerfully interrupting a conversation only to realize they were in the middle of discussing a death in the family. (So far, hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood!)
I identified with Leo’s struggle for autonomy. It’s such a hard line to walk — to know you have to rely on hearing people for access/success, but at the same time hating that reliance and wanting to assert your own self-sufficiency. It’s a common undercurrent frustration in the Deaf community. Feeling infantilized in hearing interactions because it’s “easier” for hearing people to deal with your hearing companions than to deal with you directly, leaving you with the dilemma of whether to push back or move on.
I had to laugh at the scene where the female observer is trying to communicate with Frank and Leo on the boat, and she just stands there and keeps talking over as they stare blankly at her. You’d think that seeing them sign back and forth on the boat for hours, she’d be clued into the fact that maybe, just maybe, talking isn’t the way to go and she should just write shit down. Nope. Some people are just very dense. I know from personal experience. I’ve done exactly the same thing, indicated I was Deaf, only for them to try talk *again.* I’ve given people my number, and they proceed to call my phone right in front of me. I stare at my phone ringing, then stare back at them. They’ll ask “Why aren’t you answering? I’m calling you!” only for them to slowly realize their mistake, hang up, and text me instead.
This particular scene moved me.
In this scene, Frank is trying to understand his daughter better, by asking her about the song “You’re All I Need to Get By” and watching her sing up close. He places his hands on the nape of her neck, to feel the vibrations of her singing. I have many fond memories of doing that with the people I love: A car trip home with a former boyfriend feeling him belt out The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.” My friends tapping out Game of Thrones theme music on my back and thigh during our weekly watch sessions.
My friend and I talked about how that sense of engagement is so important to share music. Just listening to a song can be enjoyable but not memorable. It’s one of the many reasons I tend to not enjoy listening to the radio–it all just bleeds together. Without access, I feel detached, much like the family at Ruby’s concert:
Like them, I can pick up context by watching how people around me react, but there’s still a sense of detachment. But watching a music video or having a friend tap the beat out or watching accessible shows or enjoying the flashing lights/video at a rave or having a friend explain the cultural significance of the music we’re listening to? That helps associate the vibrations or sounds I might be feeling with something more tangible. Again, I have many fond memories of long car trips with my friend where he will turn up the music, tell me to turn on my lyric identifier app, and explain the history of the artist or the song that he’s streaming. Every trip we take together, I leave with at least 3 new songs to add to my IPod.
I appreciated that Sian Heder had DASLs (Directors of Artistic Sign Language) on set and collaborated with them to allow the Deaf actors tell their story clearly. One of my biggest frustrations with Hawkeye was how they filmed Echo (Alaqua Cox) — I genuinely liked her, but I couldn’t celebrate her because the camera often centered on her face or on other characters, cutting off her signing. (I hope they rectify that problem in Echo’s upcoming mini-series!) Thankfully, that did not happen in CODA. All characters are shown signing with their hands, heads, and torso clearly in frame so we can see their expressive sign language.
The ASL-to-English translation was pretty accurate, but the film really benefits from knowing some ASL or paying close attention to the actors — there’s so much color that English translations just can’t capture:
The gist is the same, but there’s just something lovely about the imagery of burning bridges by throwing your left nut as a grenade over your shoulder. Troy Koster is mesmerizing to watch; You haven’t lived until you’ve seen him sign “My nuts are on fire. They’re like angry hard little beets. Covered in barnacles.” or his condom monologue! That kind of beautiful signing magic just wouldn’t have been possible with non-native signers.
Emilia Jones is not a CODA/fluent signer herself — she learned ASL for 9 months before filming began. Normally, this could be a point of contention, but I think it works well for the story — her signing is understandable and fits anecdotal evidence (from other Deaf parents) of some CODAs not being fully fluent signers. I did appreciate that when the music teacher asks Ruby how she feels about singing, she doesn’t have the English words to express it, but she does in ASL — ASL is her first language after all.
Is CODA a perfect movie? No. There are some quibbles that I was willing to overlook:
As hinted by the title, CODA, the movie is centered on Ruby’s hearing-centric perspective. I do wish they focused a little bit more on the Deaf family, but I think going into that direction would have veered too much into “After School Special” territory. Making Ruby the main character allowed for a more accessible entry point for mainstream audiences.
Getting 3 Deaf actors to lead a movie is a triumph, and their authenticity allows the movie to rise above the script’s flaws. The script was written and directed by a person with no connections to the Deaf community. The acting and on-set consultants help make it not blatantly obvious, but its hearing-centric flaws does seep through — Many of those issues are summarized by Jenna Beacom in her blog here: https://jennafischtrombea.com/2021/08/13/coda-review/; While many of her issues didn’t necessarily bother me, they are valid complaints.
It did bother me how much the Deaf parents relied on Ruby for “free interpreting” especially in situations (Doctor appointments, court hearings) where ADA mandated that an professional interpreter be provided, making such scenarios illegal. It portrays them as incapable of being self-sufficient without hearing support. How did they manage before Ruby came along? On the other hand, that has been the experience for many CODAs everywhere. It’s not right, but I could empathize with parents not wanting to jump through the hoops of coordinating interpreters, especially for last minute notices. There have been moments in my life where I don’t want to deal with the hassle of coordinating interpreters, figuring I’d just roll with it.
Between CODA and A Quiet Place, this is a good time for mainstream Deaf stories.
Despite its flaws, CODA does gives a good glimpse into the Deaf world. I hope CODA’s success allows for more Deaf voices to share their stories.
Available on AppleTV+