coda at sundance

Director: Siân Heder

Cast: Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant

Category: US Dramatic Competition

At first, the premise sounds obviously sappy. In a tiny coastal town, a 17-year-old CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) named Ruby Rossi – even the name sounds sappy – nurses a dormant passion for music. Of course she does. Even her mother thinks it’s a cliche. “If I were blind,” the deaf woman wryly sign-asks, “Would you have been a painter?”. Ruby’s parents are funny, crude people: hipster-movie-crude in the way they gleefully crack dirty jokes, lust for one another like sex-comedy oldies, and even get berated for having loud sex by the only hearing member of the house. In short, they’re a cinematically accessible American family. Ruby, in her capacity as their lifelong interpreter (as opposed to translator), also helps run their fishing business. She is the subtitles to their silent movie: the only link between the noisy world and their vacuum of sweaty serenity. The deafening silence of their dependence cripples her so deeply that she is riddled with social anxiety around regular high-school teens. She’s not so great at ‘normal’ communication. Human voices – including her own – make her nervous. 

But that’s the thing about CODA. The premise sounds unabashedly sappy because most of its characters can’t hear it. Writer-director Siân Heder throws the kitchen sink at our needy hearts: there are happy montages, sad montages, pop music, eccentric teachers, intense parent-daughter moments, heady first kisses, ugly spats and climactic do-or-die concerts. And it clicks. It’s one of those rare instances where we know precisely how the film is built to manipulate us, yet we want to be manipulated. We want to be fooled, moved and pummelled into sweet submission. We want to watch a deaf couple trying to hear their daughter’s singing with their eyes in an auditorium full of adoring listeners. We want to be part of their ear-splitting muteness at dinner, because they’re the ones chuckling at the hearing world and not the other way around. 

Most importantly, we root for – and therefore rationalize – the idiosyncrasies of the family. The cliches have good reason to be heightened, and the film commits to them. Ruby’s voice is not just a narrative gimmick; it’s an inadvertent consequence of her upbringing. Just as the best of writers write like nobody is reading, Ruby sings like nobody is listening – because, in her case, nobody really is listening. Her talent is accidentally honed due to years of subconscious practice; even her default level is high because she has nobody to judge or stop her. Music to her is not just an escape, but also a reminder that she can hear in a home that overcompensates with vision. Consequently, Ruby has no idea how good her voice is. She has no idea who she can be. Her parents are deliberately crude because they enjoy seeing people torn between cringing and sympathizing – it’s the one reaction they don’t need sign language to understand. It’s their little in-joke.

It’s human nature to mistake linguistic differences for intellectual differences. When we interact with someone who speaks in a language that’s not ours, we often resort to desperate hand gestures and exaggerated lip movement – we start to talk down to the person, as though they were mentally incapable of processing the meaning of words. Most films, too, make the same mistake while speaking for and to a disabled community. They end up treating their characters as psychologically diminished beings – as necessary stories instead of real people. CODA, by design, circumvents this problem with humour and authenticity. The overbearing-parent syndrome is built into its DNA: their crushing reliance is as physical as it is spiritual. It’s their umbilical cord that needs to be cut, not Ruby’s. Because Ruby, like any other kid, is simply torn between her past and her future.

These subtle subversions of gaze are defined by a cast of deaf actors normalizing their social aptitude. The mother is played by Marlee Matlin, who is to date the only deaf performer to have won an Oscar. She defies the trashy-mom stereotype with the kind of perceptiveness that almost made me clamp my ears shut during her showdowns with Ruby. At one point, she admits that her heart sank when she discovered that her newborn was not deaf – “I was worried we would never connect.” It’s a violently selfish confession by most standards, but Matlin’s face tells a story that we – as regular watchers – aren’t supposed to understand. It helps that Ruby is played by an 18-year-old Emilia Jones, who is a revelation as the girl whose calling is at odds with her heritage. Most teens are anomalies in their own families, but Ruby’s literal predicament is informed by Jones’ turn. The last time I was as impressed by a “high-school performance” was when Hailee Steinfeld delivered that knockout breakout in The Edge of Seventeen. 

Writer-director Siân Heder throws the kitchen sink at our needy hearts: there are happy montages, sad montages, pop music, eccentric teachers, intense parent-daughter moments, heady first kisses, ugly spats and climactic do-or-die concerts. And it clicks.

But perhaps the presence that makes CODA what it is for me is Ruby’s father. Troy Kotsur has an incredibly resonant movie face. As the gruff, weird stoner who wears his soul on his sleeve, he might have been a wasted tragedy in most other films. But the creases and wrinkles on Kotsur’s face speak their own language – they convey the sort of weathered emotional intelligence that isn’t seen enough in screen dads these days. One of the best scenes of the film features him touching Ruby’s throat to “hear” her sing – it’s unabashedly sappy again, but the way the longing in his eyes morphs into pride elevates our reading of the film’s high notes.

Seconds earlier, when Ruby admires the stars in the sky, he remarks that they don’t look as good as they do on the water. The obvious way to interpret his disarming comment is that he’s a fisherman; he is used to seeing the sky in the ocean. But in CODA, it’s almost profound – the man perceives beauty, too, through one degree of separation. And then he proceeds to place his hand on her vocal cord. Separation is their only certainty. 

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