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CODA review: A tender film about communication

Sian Heder’s CODA is both a simple, feel-good drama and a giant step forward

A still from 'CODA'
A still from 'CODA'

Writer-director Sian Heder’s drama, adapted from the 2014 French comedy-drama La Famille Bélier, follows a fairly conventional storytelling pattern about the coming-of-age of a 17-year-old in small-town America. Except that while Ruth Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a self-conscious teenager desperately trying to be normal, her life is far from ordinary.

Ruth wakes at 3am to join her father and brother on their fishing boat. She then rushes to school, where her peers taunt her for the lingering fish smell. Ruth, who loves to sing, blasts music on her home stereo and sings loudly on the boat. No one objects as she is the only member of her family who can speak and hear. For Ruth is a CODA—a child of deaf adults. She is a co-worker, an interpreter and a translator—her family’s most tangible connection between the deaf world and the hearing world, which includes negotiations for the best deal for their daily catch.

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Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for Children Of A Lesser God (1986), plays Jackie Rossi, who is married to Frank (Troy Katsur). Just like his parents, their firstborn, Leo (Daniel Durant), too is deaf. There is a sweet scene where Ruth and her mother talk about what was going through Jackie’s mind as she waited to hear about her newborn daughter’s hearing abilities. It speaks volumes about the assumptions people make about the feelings and experiences of the differently abled.

This is amplified when Ruth meets music teacher Bernado Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who opens up a new world for her. Ruth is a talented singer whose parents cannot hear her sing. But her aspirations will leave her family even more handicapped. The family’s dilemma is acutely moving. If Ruth goes, how will they communicate with the world?

With three Oscar nominations, CODA (streaming on Apple TV+), which swept the Sundance Film Festival 2021, is a giant step forward in normalising a disability; three deaf actors play the lead roles. The film is a touching, sometimes exuberant, occasionally mischievous study of what it is like to be deaf, conveyed through clever sound design and inventive use of the American Sign Language (ASL). Heder does not tiptoe around the disability. You can imagine the family’s soundless existence. In one affecting moment between father and daughter, Frank figures out how to “feel” his daughter’s song. As the bridge between two worlds, trying to find her own space, Emilia Jones impresses with her ASL skills (apparently, she spent nine months training for the part), singing and fishing. You feel the weight of responsibilities Ruth has to shoulder on her teenage shoulders.

The director’s triumph lies in crafting a lovely drama about a dysfunctional family and the journey of a girl who transitions seamlessly between two languages and a dual existence. Buoyed by a rich soundtrack that includes songs by Marvin Gaye, Etta James and covers sung by Jones herself, CODA is mostly shot in daylight, with light shining on its principal characters. This is a film about deaf people and their integration into society, but it’s not a quiet film. CODA is a simple, feel-good film where the protagonists communicate tenderly, clearly and firmly.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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