Hearing Is Not Necessary To Feel

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Emilia Jones in CODA (2021)

By Paul Hall

CODA is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults. CODA is also a new film dealing with family, life and growth for us all.

Imagine growing up your entire life having to be at the center of everything for your parents. That is the case for Ruby (Emilia Jones). Life has never really been about what she wants. Before school she works on the family fishing boat alongside her deaf father and brother. Following the early morning grind, she heads to school, not always staying awake through all her classes, but trying to learn.

If there is an appointment for any of the members of her family, she is there to translate, although sometimes she might leave a detail or two out.

But Ruby longs to do something for herself. Something that makes her happy. And, well, she is a teenager, so she is interested in the boys at her school. Having been picked on her whole life, things are hard.

She is the child of “those embarrassing people.” They play loud rap music because the vibrations allow them to feel the music. They have little filter, because most don’t understand them anyway. But Ruby is reaching her breaking point.

As her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) longs for the trust his parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) give Ruby, he knows how vital she is to the family.

But Leo also knows she needs to succeed as well and that may mean taking a chance for her own future. A crush leads Ruby to choir, and it is there that the child with the deaf parents is able to finally do something she loves — sing.

Her choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez) has faith in her and won’t take excuses. But because of his immense belief in where she is going, he helps her to take the necessary steps to follow her own dreams. Can her feeling of obligation to her family coexist with her own desires, or will she need to forego her future for the well-being of her family?

I’ve stayed as neutral as I can to this point in laying out the story of CODA. Now I can bust out in song myself by belting out the following: I love this film. I would sing it from the highest mountain if I could. CODA features an amazingly simple family story that delicately deals with a variety of topics. I laughed and cried and found myself totally invested in the film from the word “go.”

Probably the most noteworthy casting decision is its best, and that isn’t even the extremely talented Jones. It is the use of Durant, Kotsur and Matlin. These talented actors are all deaf, not hearing actors playing a caricature of a deaf person. You feel the true struggles that must have been part of their lives since day one. Raw emotions, real feelings and a total embodiment of their characters.

Director Sian Heder allows us to laugh as the family takes part in selecting Leo’s Tinder dates but also feel the pain that Leo has for never being “good enough.” The use of sound, and the lack thereof, illustrates the difference in a moment’s impact. And how some slight modifications and acceptance by those of us who have never struggled with the loss of hearing can have a far-reaching impact in making the world a better place.

Jones is wonderful as Ruby. She excels at showing her character is vulnerable to all of the meanness in the world that comes from people who do not understand. The bullying and the jokes, the laughing and the insults, all cut deeper than some may realize.

CODA is a revelation. It’s a film that affirms why I love reviewing movies. I go to a place, courtesy of some folks I don’t even know, and on that rare occasion I feel something that fills me with joy, hope and belief that the world can be a better place.

Paul’s Grade: A

Rated PG-13
Stars: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez
Director: Sian Heder