Children defy their parents. Parents embarrass their children. They hug it out.
Audiences may roll their eyes at these coming-of-age movie cliches. But when a movie like “CODA” – now in theaters and on Apple TV+ – comes along, smiles easily spread across faces as deaf actors and characters finally get their chance in the spotlight.
“CODA” – which stands for child of deaf adults – is the story of 17-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), the hearing child of deaf parents (Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur), who’s caught between helping her family’s fledgling fish business in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and pursuing her singing aspirations in college.
“CODA” marks a moment of unbridled joy for deaf communities – finally, yes, significant representation since 1986’s “Children of a Lesser God” – though doesn’t come without its critics who advocate for stronger authenticity in media representations of deaf and CODA culture. As with any marginalized group, they are not monolithic.
“My hopes were so high, and I was so disappointed at the missteps and missed opportunities,” Jenna Beacom, a sensitivity reader and YA author says. “And so much is misrepresented, especially deaf people’s competence and ability to thrive in 2021.”
Delbert Whetter, chief operating officer and head of business affairs at Exodus Film Group, thought otherwise. “After seeing so many stories where people with disabilities are depicted as helpless, forlorn souls needing to be rescued, it is so refreshing to see a story with deaf characters that are small business owners and leaders in their fishing community, with depth and nuance that rival and even exceed that of their hearing counterparts in the story,” Whetter, also, vice chair of the disability nonprofit RespectAbility, says.
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The film, written and directed by Siân Heder (“Tallulah”), was a hit out of Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for drama as well as best director and best ensemble. Apple TV+ purchased the film for $25 million.
Audiences and reviewers quickly hailed the movie out of Sundance – and rightly so, according to members of deaf communities.
Whetter appreciated the film’s ensemble with multiple deaf characters – what he calls “a rarity.”
“This matters a great deal because one, there are so many amazing deaf performers out there who deserve opportunities to be seen, and two, by only making films with only one deaf character, Hollywood closes itself off from the opportunity to tell incredible stories rooted in our communities and culture,” Whetter says.
The ASL dialogue also impressed him. “Credit must be given to the ASL consultants on the film, and to (Jones) as well, whose facial expressions and body language were so on point, it is almost hard to believe she wasn’t raised by a deaf family,” Whetter adds.
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Deaf writer Sara Novic enjoyed the film allowing its characters to exist beyond their deafness. Deaf characters not only have sex in the film, but Ruby’s father tries to give his daughter a sex talk via sign language – which one can only laugh-cry at.
“I liked that these characters were sexual beings – deaf and disabled people are often neutered or virginal in movies and books and that’s extremely boring and inaccurate,” Novic says.
James Viscardi, a CODA himself, felt the film accurately portrayed his experience.
“That isolated experience of being the ears/mouthpiece for your family, and how that forces a child to grow up fast, I thought rang very true to my own experience,” Viscardi says. “I was also into music as a child, and so this story hit way closer to home for me than anything.”
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With praise, however, comes backlash too.
Beacom is deaf and has a 20-year-old hearing daughter – also an accomplished singer and part of a high school choir like Ruby. But she didn’t feel uncomfortable watching her sing like Ruby’s family does in the film.
“I have been in the exact position shown in the movie, sitting in the audience watching her sing,” Beacom says. “And I have been nothing but thrilled for her and her successes.”
“Overall, I’m thrilled that the movie exists, in the sense of contributing to more deaf representation and hopefully more opportunities for even better representation,” Beacom says. But she’s also “very disturbed by how negatively the movie portrays the deaf and CODA experiences.”
Ruby serves as the primary interpreter for her family, even in situations where there could’ve been a paid professional there, such as in a courtroom or doctor’s office.
“There is an absolutely mind-boggling lack of professional ASL interpreters,” Beacom says. “I get that the family is isolated, and I get that they don’t have much money, and some of the more incidental interactions make sense.”
National Association of the Deaf (NAD) CEO Howard A. Rosenblum, notes, however, this is the case across many other settings.
“American society has changed in many ways including stronger disability rights that have empowered many deaf adults to rely less on their hearing children as was portrayed in ‘CODA'”, Rosenblum says. “Nevertheless, there are still many hearing children today who function as the family interpreter for their deaf parents, although this should never happen in formal settings like a courtroom or a hospital where professional neutral interpreters are required.”
Novic concedes, too, the film is somewhat of a cliché – “coming-of-age misfit in your family” – but “three real deaf leads is unprecedented and really exciting.”
Still, communities crave more. “More stories of, about and by deaf and hard of hearing people are needed in every shape and form to portray the full range within the truly diverse deaf and hard of hearing community,” Rosenblum says. “By employing deaf and hard of hearing actors, the public is given opportunities to see these differences in our society.”
Another point of contention: The film centered on a white family. Did it have to?
“I’d rather Hollywood accept that there is a great thirst for unique stories centering Black deaf people and the people we love, and fund and produce those films,” Adrienne Gravish, group director and consultant with Deaf Talent Media and Entertainment Consulting, says.
Twitter user @ashleyodiliaa wrote before watching the film: “As a Black coda, I have many thoughts, and most are critical. But, this is the first time i’ve seen CODA representation in film. I’m prepared for the sea of interesting emotions to come.”
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For Novic, seeing any representation onscreen at all brings her to tears.
“Pretty much every time I see a deaf performer on stage or screen I cry, and CODA was no exception,” she says. “I am so hungry for authentic representation of deaf people in our media that it’s an overwhelming feeling just to see a glimpse of yourself on the screen. It’s almost a relief.”
There’s hope for more representation going forward.
“Deafness isn’t a monolith,” Novic says. “I want to see diversity of race and sexuality and class and experience and interest, the way the deaf community really is. You can’t cram that all in one film, though; that’s why ‘disability representation’ isn’t a thing that Hollywood can add to a to-do list and then cross off – it’s an ongoing project.”
For hearing people, watching the film could make leaps and bounds of difference.
“My hope is that when people see this movie, and encounter someone deaf in their everyday lives, they show a bit more compassion for what they face on a daily basis,” Viscardi says. “I remember not many people taking me seriously when I’d speak up and for my parents, and how cruel people could be without realizing it.”
And in case you missed:Sundance 2021: ‘CODA’ star Marlee Matlin talks inclusion, calls on Hollywood to ‘hire more deaf actors’