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The New Film ‘CODA’ Shines a Spotlight on the Deaf World

This heartwarming family drama about a child of deaf adults, starring Emilia Jones and Marlee Matlin, breaks new ground. 

Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA (Apple+ 2021)

CODA tells the story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a seventeen-year-old girl who is the only hearing person in her deaf family. She helps her parents, Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur), and her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), run their family’s fishing business.  Ruby’s parents and brother are the only deaf people in their small Massachusetts town, leading the teenager to struggle with fitting in and feelings of isolation. When she joins her school choir, Ruby realizes singing is her true passion. But as her family’s business hits a rough spot, Ruby finds herself torn between chasing her dreams and staying connected to her family.  

The movie’s title has two meanings. CODA refers to ‘Child of Deaf Adult’, as well as being a musical term referring to a passage that ends a piece of music. 

Since the film’s release in August, CODA has received rave reviews. It was the first film in Sundance Film Festival history to win all top prizes in the US Dramatic Competition category.   

I spoke with a CODA friend, Amanda Shae Fouche, about her reaction to the movie. “For me, it’s hard to put into words the internal struggle I feel as a CODA,” she said. “This film found the words I couldn’t find. It shows the tightrope we walk as CODAs, always teetering between the Deaf and the hearing world. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone.” 

 The film’s director and screenwriter, Siân Heder, felt that this was an important story to tell. “CODA is a unique identity,” she said. “They’re raised within American Sign Language (ASL) culture and oftentimes feel uncomfortable navigating the hearing world. Yet they are hearing. They can feel connected to both communities but also not really a part of either.” 

But Heder didn’t want to show only the struggles of being a CODA, but the joys of that identity as well.  “From talking to a lot of CODAs, many don’t feel that it’s a burden all the time. CODAs are proud of their families and their Deaf culture. There is an incredible amount of self-worth and identity that comes out of that,” she says.  

Because Heder is hearing, she took ASL classes and studied Deaf culture while working on CODA. “Deaf culture really is its own culture,” she said. “It’s not just learning to sign. There’s a whole history, tradition, cultural norms and lived experience around it. As a non-deaf person presenting this story, I felt it was important to have people from that community involved in every step of the project.” 

Enter Academy Award-winning actress and deaf activist Marlee Matlin, who plays the role of Ruby’s mom. Together, Heder and Matlin pushed for all the deaf characters in the film to be played by deaf actors. “Marlee is a force of nature and I felt so happy to have her on this project,” Heder said. “She’s been in the business for 35 years and she’s a wonderful leader.” 

Learn more about how Marlee Matlin embraces God’s gifts and refused to let her deafness stop her from pursuing her passion for acting. 

“I think the film deals with a very universal feeling,” Heder says. “How do I find my own identity within the context of the people who raised me?” While CODA is a coming-of-age film many people can relate to, it also has something important to say.   

“I think movies are incredible tools for empathy,” Heder says, “I hope what people take from this is the desire to reach across boundaries. Even if it gets viewers to sign up for an ASL class and learn the first 100 words. We’re human beings and we have a million ways to communicate that are not through spoken language.” 

Heder also hopes CODA isn’t the only film of its kind. “As more audiences see this story, I hope it sparks an interest in Deaf culture and opens the doors for more stories to be told about deaf characters by deaf creators, deaf directors, and deaf writers.” 

My friend Amanda hopes hearing audiences will learn something from CODA. “I want this film to teach the world that laws need to protect and help everyone, not just the majority,” she says. “Procedures can always be adapted to suit people’s needs. You can change and accommodate to better the world.” 

CODA stars Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant,Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Eugenio Derbez. It is playing in theaters and is available to stream on Apple TV+. Check out the trailer below. 

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