Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
CODA revolves around Ruby, the teenage daughter of a family of generational fishermen, and with both her parents and her brother being deaf, is also a CODA (child of deaf adults). Ruby is passionate about music and singing, something her parents know next to nothing about (for obvious reasons), and the whole movie is about her choosing where her values lie the most.
CODA’s most noticeable message is about what sound is when you can hear no sound, about the meaning of music when you (or at least everyone around you) lack the ability to enjoy it. Music is something of a sensitive nature in Ruby’s family, sometimes borderline controversial. The film opens with a scene of Ruby on a fishing boat, working with her father and uncle, but she is the only one that sings while the other two seem tired and disinterested. The family rather talks about Tinder and other trivial things at the dining table than has Ruby playing her music, because at least Tinder is “something we can do together as a family.” Facing Ruby’s announcement that she is going to join the school choir, her mother replied: “Would you start painting if I’m blind?”, to which she rebuffed, with frustration, “Why do you have to make everything about you?”
Indeed, Ruby’s family’s priorities usually come first, as their fishing business is not doing well and they are constantly ripped off on the account that they are deaf and therefore are not able to bargain as effectively as others. Ruby’s desire to join the choir, and further on to apply for a music academy instead of continuing the family’s business is accordingly seen as a selfish choice, especially when the whole family lacks the capacity to enjoy the skills that Ruby prides herself on having the most. “And what if she can’t sing? Maybe she is awful,” Ruby’s mom laments. “I’m worried. What if she fails?” Parents sometimes prevent their children from applying for art schools, but it would be natural for parents who cannot hear to oppose their child’s choice of pursuing a degree in music. The contrast between music and deafness is not unique in cinema, having been explored in the romantic drama Listen to Your Heart (2010) and the more recent Sound of Metal (2019), among others, but only when it comes to CODA the struggle to accept music by those with hearing loss is clearly presented, in my opinion.
Having said as much, Ruby, always seen as the rebellious and immature teenager by her family, is the family’s only connection to the real world; she acts as their de facto sign-language interpreter, their obligatory passage point to the lives of others. So Ruby’s family expects her to be there for them at every important event, robbing her of the time to do her own important things, like practicing singing. Wherever her family goes, she has to follow, making her wonder what it means to have actual freedom and spaces for self-development. This frustration comes to a tipping point when she remarks, on the verge of tears – “I’ve never done anything without my family before” – fishing and interpreting are the only two things she knows in life. This brings the audience to the second plot point in CODA: the meaning of family and community. The self and the common are always in conflict in Ruby’s life: she has a hard time connecting to her friends and social circles at school, being bullied often for being the only kid whose parents are deaf, yet sometimes she can’t wait to be away from her family, the closest connections she has, and have the chance to explore her life options all on her own. Ruby’s family is also facing a shift in the communities of fishermen they belong to; as prices have risen and they were being constantly ripped off, they thought of seceding from the fishermen “union” and making a business of their own, leading to a bunch of other problems. The family stands at a crossroad: either losing Ruby or losing their whole fishing venture, as there must be someone with good hearing on the fishing vessel at all times.
Most importantly, the film uses these themes of family and conflicts to bring to life the issues and social stigmas that deaf people and their descendants have to face in their daily life. An notable example would be how Ruby has to be late for her music practice to assist her family when a news station want to interview them about their independent business venture; one would argue that for the news station to not bring along with them a sign-language interpreter when attempting to interview deaf people is already a grave shortcoming on their part. CODA approaches this theme the same way the manga Koe no Katachi (2013-2014) uses trauma and redemption to tell the story of school bullying of disabled students, or A Quiet Place (2018) uses a post-apocalyptic setting and monsters that hunt by sound to invite the audience to feel what it is like to live in a noise-proof world.
Coming-of-age dramas rarely get this good, and last year was graced with at least three of them. The decision to give CODA the Academy Award for Best Picture this year might not sit well with some people, especially when placed next to fan-favorite The Power of The Dog (2021). Sure, it may not stand out in terms of technical and cinematic achievements, but what is true cinema but emotions – the raw, earnest type that is slowly stirred deep inside us by nuance characters, incredible performances, and profound narratives? In this sense, any award CODA receives would be truly deserving. More than just a feel-good film, as many call it, CODA is a motion picture of hope, painted with the melodies that can only come from the heart.
Now available to stream on Apple TV+