Film & Television

‘CODA,’ The Celebrated Sundance Film, Sings

The word coda is defined as “a concluding musical section that is formally distinct from the main structure.” The four letters are also an acronym for “child of deaf adults.” The fact that both apply (although the latter more literally) is just one of the many delightful elements of writer-director Sian Heder’s heartwarming film CODA.

If you paid attention to Sundance’s (virtual) Film Festival last January, you’ve already heard of CODA. It not only took the festival’s top honors — the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award — it set a new record for distribution rights. Apple paid $25 million for it, purportedly winning a bidding war with other streaming services Amazon and Netflix.

Whether Apple’s investment pays off is yet to be determined. The buzz, however, is well warranted. CODA is a joy for so many reasons, and a significant win for inclusion and representation.

CODA, which is loosely based on the 2014 French title La Famille Bélier, tells the story of the Rossi family of Gloucester, Massachusetts: mother Jackie, father Frank, brother Leo, and sister Ruby. Jackie, Frank, and Leo are deaf; Ruby alone is hearing. Every morning, Ruby wakes before dawn to fish with her father and brother, operating their boat’s radio and negotiating a fast-dwindling price for the morning’s catch. She then races to high school, where she’s a lackluster student and does her best to stay more or less invisible.

She chooses choir as an elective (because she overhears her crush enrolling), and soon stands out among her classmates. She’s a naturally gifted singer and attracts the attention and mentorship of the choir’s director, Bernardo (“It’s Berrrrrrrnarrrrrrrrrrrrrrdo,” he informs the class) Villalobos. Mr. V. encourages her to train and apply for a scholarship to Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music.

Ruby is torn. Her family needs her; after a run-in with the Coast Guard, they cannot continue to fish without a hearing crewmember aboard. They also can’t share her ambition. “If I was blind,” her mother asks, “Would you want to paint?”

The rest of CODA makes the most of filmic tropes from a variety of different genres. It’s an improbable mashup of coming-of-age, triumph of the underdog, family drama, protest, and first romance. There are mean girls and monopolistic authorities, an awkward first date, and a hugely satisfying happy ending.

Predictable? Yes. But, moving nonetheless? Absolutely!

All of Heder’s characters are quirky enough to feel real. Jackie and Frank are raunchy and as uninhibited (or perhaps more so) as any sexy hearing couple. Leo and Ruby insult each other in the foulest-mouthed (if that’s an appropriate adjective) American Sign Language you’re likely to hear or see. Leo supports Ruby’s ambition with his own agenda in mind. He’s embarrassed that his younger sister has to interpret for him and eager to take a leadership role in the local fishing industry. The family unit is changing as Ruby, per the word coda’s definition, grows distinct from the main structure. But stakes are high, and emotions run higher.

Much credit for CODA’s success goes to Heder’s fantastic cast. The breakout star is Emilia Jones, who at 19 has already been nominated for a BAFTA (Britain’s Academy Award equivalent). The film depends on her, not only for her own acting and singing (which are brilliant and soulful), but to serve as a voice for the rest of the Rossi family, whom she alternately resents and protects and deeply loves. It’s utterly impossible not to root for Ruby.

Marlee Matlin, who shines as Jackie, is probably the only familiar face you’ll see. Matlin won the Best Actress Oscar for 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. She was (and remains) the only deaf actor to do so as well as the youngest. In her hands, the stock disapproving mother transcends to a fully realized woman with her own history and unresolved issues. Troy Kotsur is disarming as Frank, an outsider whose rage at a system that’s slowly strangling him can only be expressed through his daughter. Daniel Durant expresses Leo’s frustration through bar fights and rushed hook-ups in back rooms. To say that they are all fine deaf actors would be missing the point. They are all tremendous actors, period. 

Heder faced challenges, however, as she explained to Rotten Tomatoes. “It started out as a studio movie and it didn’t end up as a studio movie. I think there’s just a way that some of these movies are financed traditionally where it’s very star-driven and it’s very much about which stars can you put in the movie that’ll mean this and this for foreign sales. There’s just a structure to the financing of these projects that is funneling everybody and pressurizing everybody to be like, ‘Go get Brad Pitt and teach him to sign.’ And ‘Why can’t he play deaf?’ Not that that was suggested, but the point being, I had a 17-year-old girl in the lead who was going to be a discovery pretty much for sure. Then I had three deaf roles and I wanted those played by deaf actors and Marlee Matlin is a famous deaf actor, but pretty much the only one.

“I think that it was a challenge for a conventional studio model to think about how to put together the financing structure on this movie. And I had gutsy producers who took it out of the studio and financed it independently and believed in me as a storyteller and believed in the cast that I’d put together. It paid off for them. That was the best part of that Sundance deal . . . . And that deal shows that stories like this can be profitable and worth investing in.”

As for Heder’s established star, Matlin sees CODA as a step forward for inclusion and representation. She recently joined The Hollywood Reporter’s podcast, “Hollywood Remixed,” and enthused, “I want to say it’s finally happening. It’s about time that everyone finally now understands how important it is to recognize our culture, our stories, our language. The amount of attention, the acknowledgement, the amount of interest, I mean, it’s coming. I think I said in one interview that I just don’t want this to be the flavor of the year. It shouldn’t be, because there are so many stories to tell. So many stories to share. 

“There’s the importance of acknowledging actors, deaf writers, people who are working behind the camera, but at the same time, I want to acknowledge deaf people in general. Just in general, not just in Hollywood. Particularly for writers, if there are stories and you want to include deaf characters, you don’t have to talk about being deaf. It’s not that our stories have to be about being deaf. Stories can have characters who happen to be deaf, and you can create the same stories as you do for people who aren’t deaf. The key here is to collaborate with the community. So I’m excited about CODA and what it will portend for people who may see the film and say, ‘Oh, it’s okay to write more deaf characters or characters who happen to be deaf.’ It’s as simple as that.”

When asked if she would have taken on the role of Jackie if other deaf characters had been played by hearing actors, Matlin’s answer was definitive. “I would have said, ‘Adios.’”

CODA is available to stream on Apple TV+.

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