A Quiet Place II was the first movie in a while during the pandemic to reach over the $100 million mark. The inevitable sequel to the 2018 hit features Millicent Simmonds, a young actress who is deaf. Much of the first movie was done with the actors using American Sign Language. Director John Krasinki put his foot down and demanded a deaf actress in the part.
In 2020, we got Sound of Metal, a wonderful movie that used (and didn’t use) sounds to help tell its story about a musician who loses his hearing and must work with others learning ASL. TV shows such as Only Murders in the Building and Hawkeye featured ASL spoken by real deaf actors.
And CODA appeared during the summer of 2021 to rave reviews. The title which is short for Child of Deaf Adults tells the story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) a high school senior in Gloucester, Mass. Both her parents, Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and her older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) are all deaf. Ruby has more or less had to grow up fast in a household where she feels like the outsider but is also needed as an interpreter.
While the movie focuses on a deaf family, played by real-life deaf actors, the themes its explores are universal for everyone. Ruby helps Frank and Leo out as they are fishermen, but this interferes with her school work and social life. She’s the daughter of deaf parents who arrive to pick her up from school blasting gangster rap because Frank enjoys the beats. (This should remind people of the ASL interpreter Kelly Kurdi who went viral of her signing “WAP” at Lollapalooza.) And of course, Ruby is embarrassed.
Since her family works in fishing, which a lot of others in the community do, Ruby finds herself isolated at school from the more well-off students. She usually has to go to school smelling of fish. And since she gets up at 3 a.m. to spend the early morning hours fishing, she sometimes falls asleep in class and doesn’t make the good grades needed to get into college.
Also, since she is her parents’ interpreter, this can lead to embarrassing subjects as she must discuss with Frank’s doctor problems he’s having where the sun don’t shine. Also, Frank and Jackie are having sex during a scene where a classmate of Ruby’s is there visiting after school. Said classmate is Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who has caught Ruby’s eye and when she sees him signing up for choir, she does too. Not that Ruby is foolishly following a boy. When the movie opens, she’s singing while on the boat but Frank and Daniel can’t hear her.
But when she’s told to sing in choir as the eccentric teacher, Bernard Villalobos, or Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez) wants to see what vocal range all students are, she gets scared and leaves. Ruby does have a beautiful singing voice. But since she has only sung around her family who can’t hear her, she hasn’t worried. Because she grew up in a household with deaf people, she said that she was bullied for the way she talked when she started school. Using singing is a way for people to overcome speech impediments. My guess was Ruby did this when she was younger.
Mr. V does finally hear Ruby’s voice and feels that she could be a contender for the Berklee College of Music in Boston with his help outside of class. Of course, this causes problems with her parents who see her as they’re on-board interpreter. At the same time, many of the fisherman are growing tired of being cheated out of money from the local board. Even though other fishermen acknowledge Frank and Daniel, they keep their distance until at a board meeting, Frank gets upset and tells the board off with Ruby interpreting. This earns him and his son newfound respect from their colleagues as they form a fishing co-op.
With this new business, Jackie feels isolated from the other wives of the fishermen as she expects Ruby to help her out as well. This angers Daniel who feels that he’s capable of doing more. The irony is that even though Daniel is deaf, he still feels excluded and an outsider himself in his own family. However, he finds an intimate romance with Ruby’s friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth) as they find a way to communicate through text messages at first.
As she rehearses a duet with Miles, she learns Miles, who comes from a more well-off family, isn’t as happy. Ruby can’t see that Frank and Jackie are a couple who still love each other after so many years as Miles’ parents are only still married out of convenience. This coming-of-age comedy drama follows many similar steps but the way it moves is what makes it so wonderful. Yes, the character of Mr. V is more suited for a sitcom. And the one day a monitor comes on the boat, Ruby takes off with Miles. And the monitor acts like she’s never been on the high seas before and doesn’t know that Frank and Daniel are deaf, leading to problems with the Coast Guard.
But these are all small problems that can be overlooked by the performances of the actors. Ruby doesn’t want to be stuck being a fishing boat interpreter for her family. Like many high school seniors, she doesn’t want her options limited. And Frank and Jackie need to realize that even though Daniel is comfortable being a fisherman, Ruby isn’t. They need to let Daniel help more. And Jackie must realize that operating a business means spending more time with people you may be uncomfortable around.
CODA, is written and directed by Sian Heder based on the 2014 French movie La Famillie Belier, which I haven’t seen. The title also refers to the musical coda which brings a passage to an end. You could look at this as the coda of Ruby’s life in Gloucester as she tries to go on to college in Boston. It is one of the best movies of 2021 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a lot of Oscar nominations and wins.
As I said earlier, the story is universal. You don’t have to be deaf or hard of hearing to relate to what’s on screen. And it’s about time, Hollywood started portraying deaf people who can do the same things as others. One of the criticism of Kurdi from ableists was why would deaf people like a song like “WAP.” And to that, I ask why not? The idea that deaf people, like other people who have physical or even developmental disabilities should be seen as helpless is a problem Hollywood is finally rectifying and one of the positive steps is casting actors who have the disabilities.
It’s been over 13 years since the Simple Jack fake movie exposed how actors think playing disabled people is a shoo-in for Oscar nominations. CODA is no Simple Jack. It’s about real people dealing with real issues. And a few of them are deaf. Deaf people have to deal with paying bills, working for a living, and also finding someone to love and spend time with.
What do you think? Please comment.