Sian Heder’s Sundance-Winning Sensation is a Deafeningly Powerful Disability Drama that Demands to be Seen for Authentic Deaf Representation

by Hassan Ilahi

Silenced stories of celebrities without hearing capabilities denied opportunities due to disabilities are seldom heard in movies. Despite loud movies indicating hearing-impaired actors can survive silent apocalypse, Hollywood has always declined deaf communities quiet place in industry. For instance, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water depicted deaf women as fish-out-of-water whose destinies belong at sea bottoms alongside monsters without disabilities. While deaf actors face roadblocks to fame, they aren’t doomed for destinies as such movies proclaim. On the contrary, Marlee Matlin’s career as an Oscar-winning disabled actress proves curses can become blessings in disguise. For all their uphill battles, deaf performers bring credibility to films able-bodied actors can’t achieve. Nonetheless, deaf actors face 95% more rejections than able-bodied actors (Ruderman White, 2016). Can Hollywood honor voiceless communities despite disabilities?

High-pitched coda symphonies movies compose when hard-of-hearing celebrities are afforded equal opportunities as actors without disabilities are deaf-initively signed through sign-language in Sian Heder’s latest film CODA. An inspiring, heartwarming and powerful coming-of-age drama, it breaks tone-deaf representation barriers through disabled casting. With her second feature, Sian Heder builds realistic family dynamics through true-to-life casting. Packed with immersive sound-design, subtle storytelling and terrific performances, it’s a remarkable remake. Although CODA is deaf-initely must-sea, ultimately it isn’t flawless. It suffers from formulaic adolescent-romance cliches. Nonetheless, it offers heartfelt entertainment that will satisfy fans of coming-of-age movies.

Set in Massachusetts, CODA follows a hearing adolescent torn between pursuing music aspirations and supporting her deaf family. Emilia Jones stars in the lead role as Ruby Rossi, a deaf family’s only hearing daughter with silenced singing aptitude. When her bandteacher offers auditions for conservatory acceptance, Ruby seizes golden opportunity. However, Ruby’s singing auditions decline when her family’s fishing-business sinks. As Ruby juggles responsibilities, she discovers her hidden voice.

Writer/director Sian Heder has always been fascinated with themes of adolescent self-discovery. Ever since she earned worldwide recognition with Tallulah in 2016, Heder has become a phenomenal female filmmaker. Her directorial debut Tallulah offered eye-opening glimpses into a nomadic woman’s self-discovery after babysitting an ill-fated infant. With CODA, however, Heder reimagines the French disability drama La Famille Belier. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize hardships of able-bodied adolescents in disabled families, but she pulls it off successfully. Using spellbinding cinematography, Heder draws viewers into a fish-out-of-water hearing teenager’s search for acceptance in her disabled family. Inspired by Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, Heder successfully employs real-life locales to signify family kinship. Working alongside cinematographer Paul Huidobro, Heder adeptly uses real locations to craft fly-on-the-wall documentary-like realism. Heder hears voiceless communities, and her film is worth watching on AppleTV+ for this reason alone.

If stories of dysfunctional disabled families do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see CODA. Assisted by sound-designer Paul Lucien Col, Heder meticulously employs shifting sound-design to signal deaf families’ inabilities to appreciate high-pitched melodies. For instance, sound-design is utilized exceptionally well to demonstrate hearing impairment in the sequence where Ruby’s family experiences her music performance. During this awe-inspiring scene, Ruby’s family struggles to acknowledge her talents through strained ears as she delivers beautiful songs for enraptured audiences. It’s hard to not admire how sounds seamlessly switch from Ruby’s functioning hearing perspective to her disabled family in hard-hitting style evocative of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. Through fantastic soundscape, Heder accurately captures hearing deterioration. Furthermore, Marius De Vries’ soundtrack merits praise. Each melody enhances storytelling. Through breathtaking production values, Heder creates awe-inspiring audio-driven experience.

Another extraordinary characteristic of CODA is the screenplay. Heder’s finest screenwriting strength is her aptitude for creating compassionate portraits of deaf communities via sign-language. In Hollywood, most movies about downtrodden deaf communities rely merely on stereotypes by depicting disabilities as disadvantages. For instance, La Famille Belier dehumanized deaf families by ridiculing them as dumbfounded victims that cannot survive without able-bodied childrens’ financial assistance. Fortunately, however, that isn’t the problem with CODA. Heder judiciously avoids disparaging deaf communities. Instead, she challenges misunderstandings about disabled communities through sign-language. Emulating John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, Heder utilizes non-verbal sequences of sign-language communication to signify Ruby’s deep-seated family relationships. Like Regan’s sign-language in apocalypse, Ruby’s gestures convey her responsibilities as a hearing-impaired family’s non-disabled daughter. Through this imaginative technique, Heder constructs inspirational hearing-impaired characters viewers empathize with despite disadvantages. In an industry that’s frequently dehumanized disabilities as obstacles, it signifies representation progress. Through compassionate storytelling, Heder creates disability empathy.

One can’t overlook outstanding performances. If non-disabled performers attracted backlash in the original, Heder attains authenticity through disabled casting.

Emilia Jones delivers a breakthrough performance as Ruby. In her first ever leading role, Jones emerges as a multi-talented actress with aptitude for depicting deaf families’ children. It isn’t easy to portray a deaf family’s only hearing daughter. However, Jones pulls it off adeptly. Taking cues from Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Jones builds a multi-layered teenager that yearns to escape her family’s nest like birds. With captivating expressions, she conveys anger, loneliness and rebelliousness of a teenager that seeks freedom from her deaf family. Not only does Jones nail sign-language, but she showcases singing talent. It’s a dazzling performance proving Jones’ destined for success.

The supporting cast is brilliant and crafts companionship. Troy Kotsur is superb, infusing sympathy in Ruby’s foul-mouthed patriarch that cannot appreciate her inaudible singing talents. Marlee Matlin is magnificent and instills shades of generosity in Ruby’s mother via sign-language. And lastly, Daniel Durant warrants praise. As Ruby’s brother, he emanates charisma.

The final component of CODA that merits appreciation is its melodious message. Despite focusing on deaf families’ experiences, the movie’s relatable message has power to strike chords with everyone. The movie tackles accessible themes of adolescence, communities and self-discovery that’ll resonate with audiences during post-pandemic times. Viewers don’t need to suffer disabilities to identify with Ruby’s clash between dreams and family. As someone whose dreams have often clashed with family expectations, I connected with Ruby’s crisis. Thus, CODA has wide-ranging appeal.

Despite its universal appeal, however, it’s unfortunate that CODA doesn’t completely burrow deep enough into overb-ear-ing burdens deaf families’ face. Heder’s decision to deviate from source material by inserting teen-romance subplot into narrative is bold and unexpected, but it deteriorates pacing. Owing to this tone-deaf technique, Ruby’s provocative exchanges with her boyfriend aren’t always as engrossing as her disabled family’s experiences. Whereas this teenage-romance subplot worked in a time-spanning coming-of-age epic like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, it distracts from this film’s deaf family’s focus. Simply put, this love-affair appears like it belongs in a Twilight-like YA adaptation rather than serious family drama. At worst, it seems intended solely to appeal towards besotted teenagers. Therefore, CODA falls short.

Nevertheless, fans of family dramas will definitely enjoy CODA and so will movie-goers seeking meaningful entertainment. A mesmerizing piece of filmmaking, it suggests deaf communities’ silenced voices deserve to be heard. As Hollywood’s deaf talent recognition, hopefully it’ll inspire actors whose destinies are defined by biased casting committees to chase dreams even if loud coda melodies are beyond their muted hearing capacities.

Hassan’s Grade:  A