A Sundance sensation, undeniable crowdpleaser, and likely Oscar contender, CODA has all the makings of a contemporary classic.
It could also prove a major cultural touchpoint for Hollywood as perhaps the most high-profile film ever released to center a deaf family.
“When I first read the script, I said, ‘This screams my name, I have to be in it,’” says Marlee Matlin, the groundbreaking deaf actress who is drawing some of her best film reviews for CODA since her Oscar-winning debut in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God (watch our cast and filmmaker interviews above).
“I knew from just the outset that this could be an awesome film because of the fact that it was so authentic, that it included deaf actors, that the characters [and] storyline [were] so universal yet so specific. Having lived as a deaf person, understanding, identifying with the story and what it was telling us … I knew. I knew it would be well-received as long as people kept an open mind and listened to the message of the film.”
Written and directed by Sian Heder, CODA is a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier and was acquired by Apple+ TV for a record $25 million at Sundance, where it dominated the awards ceremony as well. The story follows Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her working class New England fishing family, or a CODA (child of deaf adults). Ruby is a supremely talented singer, and tension arises with her otherwise fun-loving and laid-back deaf parents (Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) when she decides she wants to leave the family business — where she’s the family’s chief translator — and pursue her musical ambitions.
In a handful of impressive feats, the revelatory newcomer Jones learned three new skill sets for the film: sign language, singing and fishing. (As Durant points out, the British actress also took on an American accent.)
“It’s not every day that you get to learn three skills for a project and combine some of those skills, too,” Jones says. “I had to sing and sign at the same time, which is kind of like multitasking under pressure. So I loved that this was film was pushing me and educating me, too. I didn’t know anything about deaf culture or ASL [American Sign Language].”
The cast hopes that education — through joyous entertainment — extends to the wider public as well.
“I didn’t realize [what a fresh experience] it would be for the hearing audience,” says Kotsur. “Because to me it’s just commonplace. But it’s amazing, the reaction of the audience and how it really resonates with them, that you see this loving family that hasn’t been portrayed in the past. Observing their reactions has been really interesting for me. It makes me think, like, ‘Where the f have you been over the years?’”
“A lot of time the deaf community is overlooked out there.”
Considering the film deals so heavily with music, the cast’s actors also weighed in on a popular misconception: that deaf people cannot enjoy it.
“I love music,” says Matlin. “My two older brothers introduced me to Billy Joel and James Taylor when I was a young kid, and I would read their lyrics and I would listen in my own way. Not the same way you do, but I learned to listen and sign to it.”
Durant enjoys “feeling the vibrations, the bass, the boom. There’s a whole variety of deaf people, and they all love music in their own ways.”
Kotsur, however, says not so much.
“I’m not really into music. So many people say how touching it is, and ‘Oh, that’s so sad that you’re missing out on this beautiful experience.’ OK. Look, I was born deaf, I’ve lived in a silent world. As far as music, I see people singing and it doesn’t do much for me.”
CODA is now streaming on Apple+ TV.
Watch the trailer:
— Video produced by Anne Lilburn and edited by Jimmie Rhee