Author’s note: I am not deaf nor hard of hearing. That said, I also cannot help but find it a bit disheartening that many deaf critics are not also put front and center as this film continually makes waves during its awards season run right now unless their views of the film are uniformly positive.
To talk about CODA is to also cover one of the most important reasons why this movie has made waves: it features a primarily deaf cast playing deaf characters. It’s easy to see how this aspect has acquired the film a very favourable tide, but as much as this film has also grown on to become an audience favourite ever since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I cannot find myself on board with that same wavelength. Which is disappointing to say, especially as this was a film that I had wanted to like on the count of how important it is to see the representation for deaf or hard of hearing people, yet maybe it’s the means of wanting to become an audience favourite that ultimately sets this film back.
A remake of the French film La Famille Belier, CODA (child of deaf adults) tells the story of the Rossi family, all of whom are deaf except for the daughter Ruby, played by Emilia Jones. Ruby serves as the hearing interpreter for her family’s struggling fishing business yet has other aspirations at play: she has a particular talent for music, which unfortunately the rest of her family is unable to experience. As CODA is primarily focused on telling the story of the hearing daughter, it’d be easy enough to say that this film, from the start, was bound to become a crowdpleaser but in fact I feel as if it’s this approach to his story which ultimately ends up holding the film back, by a whole lot. In fact, it’s the fact this movie aims to be a crowdpleaser for hearing audiences which sadly is what leaves a rather awful taste in my mouth with all the admirable aspects that are at play in here.
While the film deserves all the praise it is getting for properly casting deaf actors to play deaf characters, the extent of my praise only stretches as far as being centered entirely on Troy Kotsur in particular. Kotsur’s role, as Ruby’s deaf father Frank, has maybe the most substantial supporting role in the film, but I think that it’s also how his character wishes all the best for Ruby on her ambitions that ultimately render him the heart and soul of the film. This isn’t to say that Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant aren’t just as worthy of recognition, but there isn’t very much to their characters compared to Kotsur, which is maybe the most disappointing aspect of CODA for myself. But a part of me kept thinking back to Sound of Metal, and although said film did not cast deaf actors to play deaf characters it showed viewers the feeling of losing your own hearing, whilst also providing mandatory captions to show hearing viewers how deaf viewers experienced the story. CODA, on the other hand, does not do any of that.
As expected from the film’s title, CODA isn’t a story about the deaf family but it’s entirely Ruby’s story – which I think is sadly the least interesting aspect at play. In fact, the problems that I do have with CODA arise from how Ruby’s story, compared to her deaf family members doesn’t feel as if it offers much substantial to differentiate itself from other coming-of-age comedy-dramas outside of the core idea that her other family members are all deaf. Emilia Jones is fun to watch, and has a lovely singing voice, but it’s also the way that her moments are framed that only comes off incredibly saccharine. It’s saccharine in the sense that you can tell how many of these moments were built around the core idea of inspiring its audience, but through a lack of having any real emotional stakes or challenges attached to them, because they’re so overtly clean.
As a matter of fact, the crux of Ruby’s story is one that feels built around a familiar coming-of-age trope – particularly as it centers around Ruby’s own ambitions to become a musician at the expense of her family’s wishes. While there are some moments that come close to being moving (there is a scene where Frank feels her daughter’s vocal cords while she’s singing which is rather lovely), nothing much else about CODA feels like it has the ambitions to rise beyond a familiar template that serves to inspire. Much as I know this shouldn’t be seen as a detriment against the film, the familiarity of this film’s structure is one that I cannot gel with, but I think that having a deaf cast ultimately is what renders this familiar padding towards a more offensive route – which may not have been Siân Heder’s intention, but it still stays intact.
With talking the film’s roots as a remake of a French film, fixing the core mistake by having its deaf characters played by deaf actors, CODA feels like an attempt to atone for the sins of the past while only doing the bare minimum. But in remaking the same story for an English-speaking audience, it seems that Siân Heder doesn’t feel nearly as interested in the deaf perspective of this story for they’re often sidelined either as inspirational fodder or to hearing viewers. But it’s also their own role in relation to Ruby’s that doesn’t sit entirely well with me, they often feel sidelined or framed as selfish, with how much is emphasized about them needing Ruby to be the hearing interpreter for them. To that extent, it’s hard for me to see CODA as anything other than harmful, because it doesn’t really do much to establish a balance between their lifestyles and it results in painting the deaf characters as helpless without Ruby.
Siân Heder doesn’t feel very interested in creating a particularly distinctive visual template for the film either; you could argue that because the film’s story is aiming to present everything so simple, this wouldn’t be the point. But it’s so hard to really find much to latch onto when it feels as if the film doesn’t have many aspirations to go beyond the way it looks to tell a story that obviously calls for greater representation for deaf actors. For me, the result is that it just lets a formulaic coming-of-age tale take on an equally generic look, which I feel shouldn’t be the case when highlighting the scenes where characters are speaking to one another in American Sign Language. Perhaps it isn’t very overtly flashy in the same way that other Sundance films can look, yet the clear contrast between how the actors versus the scenery is directed ends up becoming an obvious detriment.
A film that supposedly should make its own name as a crowdpleaser, especially with the representation at play, can at least offer more than to service its hearing viewers with a formulaic coming-of-age template. With the fact that CODA seems more interested in treating its own deaf characters as a hindrance to Ruby’s own growth, whether it be in the fact she is a necessary part of their fishing business as the hearing interpreter of the family, or the fact they are unable to experience her own talent for music. It seems to be one built to hit all the right moments, to make a certain audience happy. But it feels too clean, artificial, and ultimately just leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Yet the last thing it seems to ask, is that it’s all about feeling nice, right? No insight, no grand aspirations, nor any real stakes define CODA, just the artificial feeling of being “nice” carries it all the way through. But at least deaf actors are properly playing deaf characters as they should have been from the start, yet simply fixing one aspect to become a right is not enough to amend for the wrongs of the past.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Apple TV+.
Directed by Siân Heder
Screenplay by Siân Heder, based on the film La Famille Bélier written by Victoria Bedos, Thomas Bidegain, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Éric Lartigau
Produced by Fabrice Gianfermi, Philippe Rousselet, Jerôme Seydoux, Patrick Wachsberger
Starring Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Running Time: 111 minutes