Article ID: JAR0921CB | By: Cole Burgett
Screenplay and Directed by Sian Heder
APPLE TV+, 2021
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for CODA.**
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There are certain films that seem primed to be award-winners, and most people can tell simply by watching a trailer. If the approach is unique, the genre is that vague and undefined thing called “drama,” the tone is generally bittersweet, and the whole thing generally feels just a little pretentious, then the film is sure to garner some attention during awards season. CODA (directed by Sian Heder) is all these things. But it’s also far less original than its concept would have you think (that is not a criticism), and at the same time hopelessly scatological (that is a criticism). In short, it’s a weird film. A well-made, thoughtful, stirringly weird film, but weird, nonetheless.
Rather than ramble on, I’ll just go ahead and say why I think this is the case up front. Why does this interesting little movie wrap itself in such base, tasteless humor for much of the early part of the movie? Because the film is smart enough to know that it’s going to come across as pretentious — the great flaw of all movies that attempt to have something to say — and so it appeals to the lowest common denominator in terms of what it takes to provoke a chuckle, as if to say, “Love me, audience, I’m not as grandiose as you think that I think I am!”
And here’s the irony: I really, really wish the film would have just been that pretentious. Because there are some truly powerful moments here. Moments powerful enough to make it worth slogging through all the finger-wagging and preachiness that usually accompany films like this. In hindsight, all of that might have made CODA seem just a little less trite in the end.
Finding a Voice. This is the plot (skip this sentence if it starts to sound familiar to you): a girl, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), with a remarkable singing ability is caught between her stuffy, working-class parents and “following her dream,” while navigating the wiles of high school and relationships under the tutelage of a quirky teacher (Eugenio Derbez) who nurtures her singing and helps her to find her voice. Like I said, it smacks of been there, done that. In fact, it might be the most obvious set-up for a coming-of-age film out there. But here’s the twist — and don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good and interesting twist — her parents are deaf.
The legendary Marlee Matlin (the only deaf actress to win an Academy Award) takes on the role of Jackie, Ruby’s overbearing mother. She’s married to Frank (Troy Kotsur), a scruffy fisherman who works hard to make ends meet. Daniel Durant plays Leo, their deaf son and Ruby’s brother, who is both ambitious and girl crazy. Everyone turns in a stunning performance, and that can’t be overstated. Seriously, there is not a bad actor or actress in this film.
These kinds of movies are generally about two things: growing up and letting go. Ruby must “find her voice,” both literally and metaphorically, accepting the fact that she is a good singer, but to make good on that, she’s going to have to go off to college and allow herself to be discovered. On the flipside, her parents must come to terms with the fact that she is going to have to leave if she’s ever going to make something of herself. With CODA there are no surprising twists in storytelling, and all the beats of the genre are hit pretty much as expected, from Ruby’s friend (Amy Forsyth) who crushes on her brother, to Ruby’s budding romance with a guitar-plucking boy named Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). There truly is nothing new under the sun.
But just because there is nothing new here doesn’t mean the movie has nothing to say. The elephant in the room as far as this is concerned has everything to do with “representation.”1 There aren’t a lot of films out there featuring deaf cast members in major roles, and CODA pushes the envelope in that regard. While I can understand that not every actor would like this film to be seen as the movie that features deaf actors (emphasis on “deaf” and not “actor”), there is no denying the fact that this very point is what lends the film its power and unique edge. There just really isn’t another movie out there like CODA in this regard. To acknowledge this in no way diminishes the quality of the acting; rather, it simply points out the thing that makes this movie distinct and worth seeing.
All That Glitters. Despite the obvious praise that will be lavished upon a film like this in the current culture, not all reviews have been positive.2 While there is a general consensus that the film is certainly a major step forward in terms of portraying disabilities onscreen, some detractors have still managed to find things to complain about, not least of all the fact that the film focuses on a white family — oh, well.
Look, I genuinely dislike reviewing films like this. Movies that are “timely” or “current” (whatever those words are supposed to mean) always seem to attract very conflicted opinions that miss the very basic and absurdly simple point of storytelling, which is — surprise — to tell a story. All of the rage about this movie swirls around the idea that it features deaf people playing deaf people on screen, and that is something worth acknowledging. The problem, however, is that, at its most basic level, CODA isn’t really about deaf people. It’s about a girl who must choose between what she wants and what her parents want for her. In that respect, it’s timeless, and the fact that Ruby’s family is deaf doesn’t really amount to all that much from a narrative standpoint. And some reviewers have picked up on this.3
Herein lies my biggest problem with this movie, and why I began this review saying that I wish the film would have just doubled down on pretentiousness. Given the premise, given the centrality of a deaf cast, I think it would have made more sense if the film had, in fact, turned very preachy. By the time the credits rolled, I was honestly left scratching my head. “Wait,” I thought, “that’s it? There’s no ‘disabled people are people too!’ message? There’s no tragic turn of events, no irresolution?” I wanted the film to come off more strongly than it did. I wanted it to take a narrative risk, to do something daring with its story, to throw a curveball my way. CODA toys with some provocative ideas, most interestingly with the character of Leo, but ends like a Hallmark movie.
Again, these things are not wrong; in fact, they are tried and true. It’s the safe way of moviemaking — do familiar but different. Same old plot, just insert a character or a family with a twist, and the result wears the veneer of novelty, while not having much substance beneath it. Leo is easily the most interesting character in the entire film. He wants to be normal, hang out with the guys, and fall in love. But it’s not as easy as he thinks. He goes out with some work buddies, only to quickly figure out that they don’t actually care very much about the fact that he can’t laugh at their jokes because he can’t hear them.
Later in the film, he argues with Ruby over the fact that his parents depend on her as their translator, bemoaning the fact that nobody in the town wants to take initiative and go the extra mile to learn how to interact with the family themselves. These are interesting ideas, they have teeth. They’re peppered throughout the movie, but never really explored. And that’s because CODA is not Leo’s story — it’s Ruby’s. And I can’t fault the film for not doing what it doesn’t intend to do. I just think Leo’s perspective is rife with more interesting conflict.
I blame any dissatisfaction I have with the final product on my own expectations, which probably weren’t helped by the marketing and the press coverage. Everything about this movie is swamped in the “deaf representation” conversation. The irony, of course, is that even the actors involved have tried to avoid this. “I want them to forget that we are deaf,” said Daniel Durant, Leo’s actor, in an interview with MPR News.4 I was expecting a movie about deafness; instead, CODA is a movie with deaf actors in it. There really is a difference, and that is a difference I can deeply respect and appreciate — I just wish the story ultimately told was as novel and interesting as that idea.
Ruby’s Story. So, we’re left to deal with Ruby’s story. And though it’s by-the-numbers, it’s nonetheless effective (that’s why it’s clichéd — because it works). Everyone, at some point, can relate to Ruby’s struggle, whether you’re a CODA (child of deaf adult(s)) or not. Whenever I am interacting with younger students trying to figure out what life looks like post-high school or college, I often tell them that no one will try to deter them from doing what they want to do like their parents. That’s been my experience, and, to a large degree, the experience of most everybody I know.
In my final year of a hellacious high school experience, I knew I wanted to start westward, and my first stop would be the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Those plans would be seriously delayed (and nearly fell apart) because I had to contend with my parents. The ending of that story was hardly like Ruby’s — that is to say, I didn’t drive away with my head hanging out the window, looking wistfully back at my family as they waved me off into the sunny ether. No, there was some screaming and separations and affairs, and some people camped way up that long river in Egypt, but I got out. By the grace of God, I got out.
And this is the real lesson of CODA. Turns out, it doesn’t really have anything to do with one’s lack of ability to detect speech frequencies. Instead, it explores the dynamics of growing up and letting go. There are many frowning fundamentalists (of which I am one most days — except I consider myself the rare happy kind) who would say (and have) that I should’ve stayed home with the fragmented family and done “my part,” as Ruby’s parents encourage her to do for about seven-eighths of this movie. But I think the morality of these kinds of decisions is a complex issue, and the rightness or wrongness of a decision is rooted in motivation. Ruby’s mother accuses her of simply wanting to get away from them, of liking singing simply because it’s something she knows her parents cannot participate in (“If I was blind, would you want to paint?” she asks at one point). And while there is probably some truth to that assessment, Ruby genuinely loves singing. Yes, her motivation is inherently selfish, but it comes from a place of loving something she’s actually good at. At the end of the day, somebody is going to have to sacrifice something. That’s the drama of the film, and that’s the drama of life.
Sure, parents often want their children to play the game of life safely. That’s an honest want. But those same parents should be wary of the warning the late Christian youth minister once gave regarding the first thing a culture does on its way to becoming secular, and that is take away “risk, danger, spontaneity, intuition, passion, chance, threat, and peril. We become slaves of predictability, of rules, of policies, of uniformity, and sameness. We learn to teach, but we’re not really teachers.”5
Getting out Clean. Ultimately, CODA gives us an ideal ending. The parents are the ones who make the sacrifice. They weather the storm, and they do it together. Because their marriage is built on a solid foundation, and they genuinely want what is best for their child. Ruby gets accepted to college, and she leaves home to pursue the thing she loves the most. My own departure from home was far less sincere (more like a gasp of relief).
But isn’t the purpose of stories — at least in part — to show us a different perspective, to put us in the context of another’s life and teach us empathy by helping us walk in another’s shoes for an hour or two? In that respect, CODA gives me hope. Hope that not all departures are rife with conflict and that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to get out clean. If childhood is a condition that we spend our lives recovering from, then CODA says poignantly that the recovery process can begin under the best of circumstances.
So long as the sacrifice is made. —Cole Burgett
Cole Burgett is a recent seminary graduate. He is also a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- Mia Galuppo, “We’re Not Deaf Actors — We’re Actors, Period: CODA’s Watershed Moment in Representation,” The Hollywood Reporter, August 4, 2021, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/coda-film-representation-1234991797/.
- David Oliver, ‘Deafness Isn’t a Monolith’: Deaf Communities Praise, Criticize New Apple TV+ movie CODA, USA Today, August 17, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/movies/2021/08/17/coda-movie-deaf-communities-praise-criticize-new-film-apple-tv/5550394001/.
- Allison Willmore, “CODA Is an Occasionally Corny But Effective Family Dramedy,” Vulture, August 12, 2021, https://www.vulture.com/article/coda-movie-review-sundance-film-starring-emilia-jones.html.
- Daniel Durant, quoted in Euan Kerr, “Duluth Actor Gets His Biggest Stage Yet in the New Movie CODA,” MPR News, August 13, 2021, https://www.mprnews.org/story/2021/08/13/duluth-actor-gets-his-biggest-stage-yet-in-new-movie-coda.
- Mike Yaconelli, “When Our Souls Stand on Tiptoe,” The Wittenburg Door (1976), 36, quoted in The Reformed Journal, 21 (January 1977): 25.