The title CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. The film follows Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she navigates her senior year of high school. She wakes up before dawn to help her dad and brother on their fishing boat, being the only one that can hear the radio. She often falls asleep in class and she joins the school choir, possibly because a certain boy signs up for it too. After stumbling to find her confidence in choir, her teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) discovers that Ruby has a natural talent for singing and offers to coach her in hopes of getting into Berklee school of music. Ruby struggles to juggle her music rehearsals with her family needing her.
I love the mother-daughter relationship shown in this film. Ruby’s mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin) asks “If I been blind would you want to paint?” She wonders if this love of music is just a form of teenage rebellion. Later she also confesses that she hoped Ruby would be deaf as well, so that they could be closer. This is a very heartfelt and sweet conversation where she tells her daughter that she was afraid being deaf would make her a bad mom.
Ruby is often put in awkward, embarrassing and hilarious situations being the only hearing person in her family. Her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), blasts music when he picks her up from school, saying “I love rap music, my whole ass is vibrating.” In an early scene we see Ruby interpreting her father’s sign language to a doctor. Her father vigorously signs the symptoms of his jock itch, Ruby tones it down for the doctor, clearly embarrassed. Later in the film, she and the boy are practicing their duet, only to be interrupted by the sound of Ruby’s parents having sex, clearly unaware of how loud they are.
While this film has very funny moments, the reality about the family’s situation is often tender. Ruby confesses that children used to make fun of how she talked when she was younger, a wound that stifles her confidence in choir, but I love the way Mr. V uses this information to help Ruby. At times the family seems to use Ruby as a crutch, relying on her too much. They expect her to be the interpreter for an interview with the local news, causing her to miss rehearsal and wearing Mr. V’s patience thin. And the one time Ruby isn’t on the fishing boat is when her father and brother needed a hearing person the most.
At it’s heart, CODA is about a family navigating two worlds at once. Ruby loves music and would be a fool not to try to get into Berkely. But she has never done anything without her family and fears leaving them could be detrimental. The moment during the choir performance where we see everything from Frank’s perspective, no sound, but seeing how everyone around him is moved by his daughter’s singing is eye opening and beautiful. He realizes just how special his daughter’s musical ability is and that moment in the truck where he feels Ruby singing moved me to tears. Later, Ruby signing as she sings was absolutely beautiful.
CODA is nominated for only three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and adapted screenplay. Troy Kotsur is nominated for supporting actor in his wonderful role as Ruby’s father. I would love to see him win, I’m sure he would sign a wonderful acceptance speech. I’m personally saddened that Sian Heder was not nominated for director. I think the tone and her vision for this wonderful film should be acknowledged.
I love that films have become so much more inclusive, telling stories of women, people of color, the disabled and other minorities. Between last year’s Sound of Metal and now CODA I hope to see more great movies about the deaf community, it will only help the world to be inclusive and understanding. I sometimes worry that stories about normal, working class people with disabilities leading ordinary lives are often overlooked and maybe that is what makes CODA so extraordinary.
“Let them figure out how to deal with deaf people. We’re not helpless”