Obscured by the slap heard around the world, this year's Academy Awards saw historic moments and a surprising upset for a little film that made its way to the big stage. Directed by Sian Heder, CODA started getting buzz in January 2021 when it premiered at Sundance, winning four of the festival’s biggest awards. It was received well during the festival season and it won three of the biggest awards at the Oscars.
The film follows Ruby, a CODA (child of deaf adults), who is trying to follow her dream of going to music school, all while helping to support her family. Her brother and dad, who are both deaf, come to depend on her to help them run their fishing boat. A social outcast, Ruby joins the school choir where she finds an ally in her teacher Mr. Villalobos. We come to feel for Ruby as her family cannot understand her passion for music, making her an outsider at school and at home.
The story draws a wide audience because it touches on highly relatable themes such as the struggles of middle-class families and being different. Ruby’s family struggles to make ends meet despite the long and laborious hours they put in. They descend from a long line of fishermen but have to consider selling their boat and giving up their livelihoods in pursuit of a better life, adding to the pressure Ruby feels to stay home and not pursue her dream. Not quite deaf enough and not quite hearing enough, Ruby is always on the outside trying to peek her head in – a feeling many people can relate to.
CODA flips the script on hearing people, forcing us to imagine a world in which deaf is the norm before painfully reminding us that it’s not. For the first part of the movie, the family can rarely be seen entering the hearing world except when they are out on the docks. But when they go to watch Ruby perform in a choir showcase, we can see why they rarely venture out. The scene opens with the sounds of the choir singing and the crowd cheering as Ruby’s family looks around for any indication of what is happening. It then goes silent, immersing the audience in the exclusive experience of going to a concert when you can’t hear. I found myself asking why isn’t Ruby interpreting for them? Why didn’t anyone think of hiring an interpreter? And that’s the beauty of this film: it reminds us of the importance of accessibility and makes us question the world around us.
CODA is a remake of the French film, La Famille Bélier, which follows a 16-year-old girl who helps support her deaf family’s farm even though she wants to pursue her dream of being a singer in Paris. The story is unique because it depicts the lives of a demographic rarely depicted in society, but it is hardly groundbreaking. It follows a familiar formula of an outsider, a girl who “is not like other girls,” but embraces what makes her different and achieves her dream in the end. It doesn't exactly defy expectations, but CODA is still an important film and an entertaining one.
Diversity comes in more ways than one, and CODA reminds us of this. It shows the ways in which one's abilities or disabilities can push them to the margins of society. However, some critics say that the movie centers on the experiences of a fully-abled person, reinforcing this marginalization. And I think hearing people should listen. Would a film that centered on the deaf experience have been as successful?
In the end, I think CODA is a thoroughly entertaining and heartwarming story with family at its core. The film has important representation for both deaf and hearing people, and it opens the door for more conversations. Conversations about how to make the world accessible for all people. It’s rare that a film warms the heart while engaging the mind. Which makes CODA my feel-good movie of the year.
Written by Kendall Ricks