Director Siân Heder’s 2021 film CODA, which means “Child of Deaf Adults,” invites us to laugh, cry, and open up to experience life as it is, in all its beautiful messiness. On one level, the film tells the engaging story of a deaf family faced with tough decisions as they struggle to keep their fishing business afloat off the gorgeous coast usetts. On another level, it is the deeper drama of the two young-adult children looking to find themselves and begin their own lives. At the same time, their parents, played brilliantly by deaf actors, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur (The Mandalorian), struggle to fill their own evolving roles at home and in the larger world. The numerous scenes of comedic family banter are an absolute joy to watch, such as when the father awkwardly and hysterically decides it’s time to give his daughter “the sex talk” in rather explicit sign language.
Seventeen-year-old daughter Ruby, played by Emilia Jones (Locke & Key), is the only hearing member of this playful and loving family, which adds yet a deeper layer and invites us to explore the different experiences of the deaf community. As the dynamics play out between Ruby and her deaf older brother Leo, played by Daniel Durant (Switched at Birth), each character pulls you further into the struggles they face. In many ways, it is what any two siblings might go through as they leave the proverbial nest, yet the insights and lessons gleaned from Ruby and Leo are especially powerful as each member of the family reflexively resists getting a little uncomfortable and redefining their roles and expectations.
Ruby dreams of pursuing her latent passion for singing, a talent she does not share with her family because she doesn’t think her parents would appreciate it. Leo struggles to get his parents to believe that he can take on the leadership role in the family business, which they keep placing on Ruby’s shoulders. Leo’s and Ruby’s experiences can seem quite different yet remarkably similar in that neither one of them feels like they are living their truest selves. They must learn to overcome their parents’ expectations as well as some of their own — and take some necessary risks to push boundaries and put themselves out there.
Yet, there is still another layer to peel in this story. What makes these dilemmas more difficult for Ruby, Leo, and their parents to unravel are our societal assumptions about the deaf, which influence the characters in complex ways. The parents treat and depend on each of their maturing children to take on certain roles and responsibilities. Ruby, as the younger sibling, is asked to take leadership roles in the family business because both society and her parents seem to believe that the world will respect her more than they would her deaf brother or themselves. How deeply have they internalized society’s persistent negative attitude toward anyone who is deaf that they don’t believe either themselves or their son capable of keeping their business above water? Perhaps they have experienced the world assuming they aren’t capable (or taking advantage of them) so often that they feel they have no choice. This protective stance, however, leads to the stifling of Ruby’s dream to pursue singing as she gets pulled further into her expected family role. And simultaneously, Leo is not given the opportunity he seeks to shine.
After nearly pushing past her breaking point, Ruby finally takes that risk. Once she demonstrates her talent and shares her passion for singing with her family, her father places his hands upon her throat and asks her to sing again. This touching scene is a musical coda in which the family fully embraces that almost ineffable feeling of just how powerfully affirming life can be when we take that risk and truly open ourselves up. Breaking free of expected roles to find what is most meaningful in life is a brilliant lesson for us all.
It is a lesson personified by each of the deaf actors in CODA as this film is perhaps the first significant big-screen representation for deaf communities since “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986. This marvelous and long-overdue achievement leaves us asking for more films like this to be made. It also gives a sense of hope that the next one will take even bolder steps to stretch society’s comfort zone for accepted (and celebrated) art and entertainment. The depth of each character is another important aspect of the film which the deaf community has applauded since so often, those with perceived disabilities are portrayed as one-dimensional, simple characters. Those depictions only feed unhealthy assumptions, set limits, and stifle dreams.
It is our dreams and our passions, which we too often keep private, that more of us need to share openly and to live every day. Whether deaf, paralyzed, young or old, this is what life is all about — finding your 2LIV4!
CODA’s writer and director, Siân Heder (Tallulah), gets the best out of this talented cast, and the film deservedly won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for drama at Sundance Film Festival as well as best director and best ensemble. Apple TV+ purchased the film where you can stream it now.