Directed by: Sian Heder
Premise: Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the teenage daughter of deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). Ruby pursues her love of music, putting her at odds with her family and their fishing business.
What Works: The title of CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults and refers to the title character who is the one member of her family capable of hearing. The film’s primary strength is its portrait of a family. Disabled characters rarely appear in the movies and when they do Hollywood tends to use the disabled as props or as idealized caricatures. CODA presents these people as full characters with complexities and flaws. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur play the parents and they are a likable couple. Their son (Daniel Durant) is also deaf but their daughter can hear. Ruby has a tense relationship with her family. They depend on her to be the bridge between the family and the hearing world but Ruby is also an outcast within her family because of her ability to hear. In this respect, CODA captures something unique. People who belong to small communities such as the deaf tend to isolate themselves. The filmmakers create a vivid sense of life within that ingroup and Ruby is both a part of her family and alienated from it. But the filmmakers also demonstrate empathy for the parents and their difficulty understanding and appreciating Ruby’s love of music. This is conveyed very effectively in a recital sequence in which the filmmakers manipulate the soundtrack to illustrate what the deaf characters are missing.
What Doesn’t: CODA is a coming-of-age story with a daughter breaking away from her family and learning to assert herself and encountering romantic love for the first time. The filmmakers do that formula well but aside from the portrait of deafness CODA offers little that is innovative or insightful. At one point in CODA, the family’s fishing operation gets into trouble with the Coast Guard and they face fines and other penalties. The feds require that a hearing person be onboard. This seems like an obvious violation of civil rights laws, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act. This aspect of the story is never really resolved. The family business is financially precarious; the parents insists that they need Ruby’s help because they cannot afford to hire another crew member. But the resolution of CODA ignores that tension.
DVD extras: Available on Apple TV.
Bottom Line: CODA is a nice family drama. The film mostly adheres to the conventions of coming-of-age tales but the film is well acted and its presentation of characters with disabilities gets beyond some of the typical Hollywood conventions.
Episode: #888 (January 23, 2022)