MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5 reels
The acronym “CODA” refers to “children of deaf adults,” which could be the title for any number of pictures dealing with the deaf community. I was worried at first that this Apple Original Film would be a droll documentary. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a heartwarming examination of family dynamics and disabilities that steered clear of the modern traps of identity politics. It was also the best film I’ve seen yet this year.
Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a typical 18-year-old high school senior who loves singing, hanging out with her friends, and collecting rare vinyl. However, she is the only hearing member of her family. Her father Frank (Troy Kutsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) are fishermen while her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) manages the books. Due to her non-disability, Ruby travels everywhere with them – the boat, the grocery store, even the doctors, where she must embarrassingly translate that her parents cannot have sex for two weeks due to her father’s jock itch.
Ruby hides her passion for song from her family, feeling that any aspirations jeopardize their ability to function in society. Yet when an earnest teacher (Eugenio Derbez) agrees to tutor her for a chance to attend Berklee School of Music she cannot forgo destiny any longer. This is a plot that has been done thousands of times before, but rarely with such wit, insight, and genuine familial love.
The first pleasant surprise is the phenomenal acting. I had seen Oscar winner Marlee Matlin before, so I knew she would be good. Besides her and Helen Keller, I doubt most Americans can even name another deaf celebrity. Yet even better were the performances from Kutsur and Durant. They were friends of Martin from deaf theater, and this was the first major film role for both. Kutsur plays the typical hilarious fisherman with a long beard, dirty sense of humor, and propensity for swearing. But it’s the scenes with Ruby that are astounding. Towards the end of the film, she sings a song privately just for him, and his eyes swell with love, pride, and loss – all the emotions of a parent rolled into one.
Durant is resentful of his younger sister in a manner similar to that of the prodigal son’s older brother. He wants to improve the fishing business but feels tethered by his family’s dependance on her. At the same time, he is protective and wants the best for his little sibling even if that means sacrificing his own happiness. All this is done without any audible words. Perhaps because they cannot talk these actors have learned to express emotions so brilliantly. Hollywood would do well to cast deaf actors for any part, whether the character can hear or not.
There are many pitfalls when creating a “minority” film. When Gentleman’s Agreement and To Kill a Mockingbird premiered, they were rare landmark events. Now, they are a dime a dozen. It’s also difficult to navigate these struggles without being preachy or creating the opposite hatred for another group of people. A good start is by making the characters—gasp!—normal people. Ruby’s family has good qualities and bad qualities. They make mistakes and can even be prejudiced. When Ruby suggest her mom hang out more with non-deaf people, Jackie signs back, “I can’t stand those hearing b—–.” Ruby rolls her eyes. “Maybe they would be nicer if you didn’t call them ‘hearing b——.’”
While Coda recognizes the bullying and teasing Ruby’s family endures, it also showcases hearing individuals who treat them with kindness and generosity. Ruby’s singing partner (and secret crush) even calls her family “perfect”. “Are you kidding?” Ruby retorts. Her friend looks down. “My parents barely even talk to one another. Yours are in love.” Everyone is disabled by original sin; but everyone is privileged to be offered redemption by the blood of Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that throughout history groups of people have experienced unjust prejudice at the hands of an oppressive majority. But the ultimate solution is not found in responding in kind, but through acknowledging our common humanity and knowing our place before God.
While Coda can be enjoyed on many levels, its passionate affirmation of the nuclear family is what makes it most unique. Rarely have I seen individuals in a blood relationship exude such pure joy. When Ruby reveals her love of music, which is difficult for her family to even observe, much less comprehend, they are patient and self-giving. They accept the irony of the situation with humor and grace. Ruby also learns to embrace her role in the family and will always be present to them, even when off on her own adventures. Of course, there is a communication barrier in terms of words, but love needs no language.
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