On Sunday night, Sian Heder’s CODA won big at the 94th Academy Awards. Scoring a victory in the Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture categories is a nice boost for the little indie dramedy that could. On the other hand, the attention received by mere nomination can be seen as reward enough for a remake of a French film about a deaf family and the hearing daughter they rely on as their interpreter.
There’s an argument to be made that Apple TV+, which snapped up CODA for $25 million two days after the film’s premiere at Sundance 2021, won the 2021-2022 awards season well before the Oscars telecast aired; however, this piece doesn’t exist to make that argument.
CODA is an odd—and polarizing—duck. Wade into Twitter’s sludgy hot take filled waters, and it is either the indisputable best movie of 2021 or the worst Oscar nominee since Paul Haggis’ execrable Crash. The rest of us watching this back-and-forth from the sidelines have two options: Support CODA and expose yourself as a filmgoer of tragic, mediocre taste, or don’t, and instead expose yourself as prejudiced against the Deaf Community.
Middle ground rarely is met on social networking apps. Take this analysis as seriously as we should take the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), which every year strives to stage a ceremony worse than the one they put on the year before.
Applying rigorous assessment to CODA is a delicate task in an environment where even mild praise or criticism may be overinflated by the film’s boosters and detractors. This does CODA no favors. CODA, if anything, is the Oscar winner most deserving of judicious review—its presence in the current awards cycle is unique.
Yes, Sound of Metal, another film centered on deafness, pulled in six nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards, taking two home; yes, Marlee Matlin, one of CODA’s stars, was the first deaf actor to win an Academy Award, on the back of her performance in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God. But, CODA inhabits its own space in that canon as a movie staffed with deaf actors, and a narrative nominally about their experiences.
What the bickering over CODA and the AMPAS and representation ignores is any consideration of the way those experiences are dramatized. Team CODA endorses the movie’s representative quality the way a caveman endorses a club; Team No-CODA lodges complaint after complaint regarding the film’s unabashed mawkishness. At no point does this conversation face up to how the film deals with deafness itself, and this is key. For a movie about deaf life, CODA emphasizes the hearing protagonist at the expense of the deaf supporting figures.
In CODA, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) shoulders the burden of being the only hearing person in her family, as her dad, Frank (Troy Kotsur), her mom, Jackie (Matlin), and her big brother, Leo (Daniel Duran) are all deaf from birth. Frank and Leo run the family fishing business with Jackie and Ruby’s assistance, a dangerous job is made more dangerous by silence. But Ruby is inexorably closing in on high school’s finish line. She sees her future on the horizon and a crossroads just ahead. She dreams of departing her Gloucester home, auditioning for the Berklee College of Music, and entertaining a singing career, which puts her at odds with her background and, yes, with her own family. What’s a hearing person to do?
A better question: Who cares? Why does Ruby matter more than Frank, Leo, or Jackie, people in the unenviable position of living in a town where nobody either speaks their language, or cares to learn, while participating in what’s widely regarded as one of the most hazardous professions in the United States?
People are adaptable; if the hearing world places obstacles in a deaf person’s way, they’ll maneuver around them. But because the Rossis have Ruby as their conduit to that world, they don’t have to make adjustments. Adaptability isn’t required. They keep the VHF (Very High Frequency) radio on their boat. They work without worrying about, for instance, the Coast Guard boarding their vessel, as happens in CODA’s second act.
This is consequential to the film’s subplot. Frank, Leo, and the fishermen ply their trade within Gloucester labor at the whim of the local fishing board, whose head, Gio (Armen Garo), announces that each fisherman must pay $800 out of pocket for federal observers to watch over their shoulders and ensure they’re following regulations.
Accordingly, the Rossis start their own co-op to sell their—and everyone else’s—catch for double what they get from Gio. When Ruby fails to show up for work on the day an observer goes fishing with Frank and Leo, Frank ends the day with his license getting suspended on account of his “disability.”
This sequence, where the Coasties hop onto Frank’s boat and catch him unawares sorting through his catch, is one of CODA’s best; there are clear stakes and suspense, layered by Frank and Leo’s combination of vulnerable dismay. Imminent crisis looms over their livelihoods.
Whether Frank can get his license back and return to the water is a question dramatic enough to occupy its own feature. Kotsur’s win in the Best Supporting Actor category is well deserved; he demonstrates ASL’s dual function as a language and a performing art unto itself with a thorough, rich portrait of a working-class man desperately staving off unemployment. Frank is a curmudgeon, a cut-up, a loving father, and a horndog. (It cannot be overstated that any film whose tertiary thesis is “Marlee Matlin is a stone-cold fox” should not be summarily written off.)
When he stands up to Gio in front of all the assembled fishermen, we understand what he’s saying through his passionate signing even before Ruby interprets; when he watches Ruby sing at her high school fall concert, and later asks her to sing to him, we understand that he understands what she’s saying through the barrier being deaf imposes. It’s a tearful, joyful moment orchestrated for maximum feel-good vibes, but where the vibes are earned.
It is also Ruby’s moment more than it is Frank’s. CODA contextualizes its story holistically in Ruby, her desire for more out of life than fishmongering, and her difficulties of being the family conduit. This is not a circumstance without merit. Her duty to her family is essential and constraining at the same time. The stress Ruby endures daily is understandable. But Heder prioritizes her stress above the dire stresses Frank and Leo face while fishing, as well as the stresses Jackie contends with when she’s in the company of the other wives.
She’s always on the outside looking in. Jackie points out that the Rossis have a community of their own, the local Deaf Community, but CODA gives itself an out for excluding them: “You see them once a month,” Ruby signs, rebuking Jackie’s protest against Frank and Leo’s spontaneous decision to buck Gio’s management. So it goes. We don’t see them at all.
CODA is Ruby’s movie. In fairness to Jones, she does have a lovely voice, and she pairs well with her deaf peers, proof of the effort she made over nine months of ASL instruction. But Ruby’s is a familiar story. The same can be said of Rossi’s story, except that their being deaf introduces unfamiliarity to what is structurally a picture about class struggles enhanced by disability in a society curated by the non-disabled.
CODA’s feel-good element might actually have felt better had Heder, who wrote the screenplay, couched positivism in Rossi’s success first and in Ruby’s second. The conflict between satisfying her aspirations and her obligation to her family is worth attending, but celebrations over a movie on behalf of representation are premature and render what CODA represents shallow.
It’s true that the AMPAS embracing deaf cinema could create inroads for more deaf cinema, which is valuable even if the film itself is less about the deaf experience and more about a hearing person’s relationship to deafness. But Children of a Lesser God created inroads as well, and Children of a Lesser God is submerged in deafness to a degree CODA isn’t. Accepting less from CODA by uncritically praising its representative virtues is ultimately an injustice against what it’s supposed to represent.