As CODA opened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, director Sian Heder (Tallulah) could not have imagined how her film would make so much noise – and go on to win three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Heder’s remake of the French-language film La Famille Bélier (2014) centres on a young woman who is the only hearing member of a deaf family.
An acronym for “children of deaf adults”, CODA* is set in Massachusetts, USA, where the Rossi family make their living within a fishing community. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is 17 years old and she serves as her family’s interpreter and negotiator in business dealings and within the community.
Her parents and brother work hard to scrape by in the competitive industry, but Ruby hopes to sing. Because she has not been heard by her family, they have difficulty connecting with her dream or understanding her struggles in life.
Their days begin at three o’clock in the morning and they put in a full day of hard work. Still, after the haul at sea, Ruby must go to school smelling of fish, looking forward to her time in the choir room with teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez) and the choir.
Her teacher sees her talent and does all he can to invest in her aspirations of attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston, despite challenges at home where everything is changing in the family business.
Even though Ruby’s family is exceptionally close, they rely heavily on her. Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) need their daughter to help them with a new business venture. This all leads to tensions and frustrations within the home and at school, mainly as she develops strong feelings for Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), her new singing partner.
What will be noticeable for audiences is how watching CODA is like enjoying a foreign language movie. All of the drama and tension occurs within the world of American sign language and becomes an exceptionally different viewing experience. Everyone involved has to pay attention to every movement and sign to remain engaged with this intriguing film that can be as visually captivating as it is well written.
Yet, the real story is found in the coming-of-age journey of teenaged Ruby who has become her family’s connection to the community. As she tries to discover what the future holds, her tight-knit family unit must consider how they can function without their daughter and sister. This turns the tale into something even more profound as it shows the connectedness of their family and how they all must grow to survive.
Everything about the story capitalises on Heder’s ability to depict the humanity of the Rossi family and the challenges they endure as they make their way in the hearing world. This means every aspect of their lives is exposed, meaning the screenplay contains some mature content. Still, CODA quietly becomes one of the most endearing and touching films around. One that will have viewers singing and desiring to know more about the fascinating world of the deaf.
How to engage with those with “different abilities”?
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:14)
In case you needed proof, CODA demonstrates how those with differences in abilities have something special to offer the world.
The gifts and challenges we have may seem odd to the outside world. Dare it to be said, they even can seem “Weird?” Yet, in looking at the Bible’s account of each person on this earth, they were all made by and loved by God. CODA and the Bible provide a different way to look at those with different “abilities”. Instead of judging or marginalising those with physical or mental disabilities, we should rethink how we engage with each other.
This might be a first step towards enhancing our own worlds – by exposing us to ways of living which might prove to be a richer experience than ever realised.
*CODA: Cultural definition – Child of Deaf Adults. Musical definition – the concluding passage of a piece or movement, typically forming an addition to the basic structure.
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.
About the author: Russ Matthews is a film critic at City Bible Forum and Reel Dialogue. He has a passion for film and sparking spiritual conversations.
Images: Movie Stills