Films about Deaf people really need to stop presenting music as the antithesis to the Deaf community. Hot off the heels of Amazon Prime’s drummer-gone-deaf drama Sound of Metal, Apple TV+ unveiled its representative offering in the form of CODA – an English language take on the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier which follows a 17-year-old hearing Child of Deaf Adults (hence the title) who is torn between pursuing her dream singing career and her “obligations” to her family.
While the antagonist of Riz Ahmed’s percussionist turned out to be his own internalised audism (that’s a prejudice towards Deaf people), Utopia star Emilia Jones’ Ruby Rossi appears to be held back by her own Deaf family – and yes, that’s as problematic as it sounds.
A lot of the film is spent making viewers understand the very real fact that CODAs often have to interpret for their parents when a qualified interpreter isn’t available or not provided, and in Ruby’s case, she hates it, most of the time. To make matters worse, instead of aiming her frustration at an incredibly inaccessible society, its attitudes and failure to make reasonable adjustments, Ruby appears to place a lot of the blame on her family’s dependence on her. She’s embarrassed by how open her Mum (Switched at Birth‘s Marlee Matlin) and Dad (Troy Kotsur) are about their sex life, and angry that her brother can browse Tinder at the dinner table – but she can’t listen to music – because it’s ‘something they can all do as a family’. In fairness, Jones does an impressive job of running through the different emotions that come with keeping multiple plates spinning as a CODA, as it were.
Social media is already awash with one clip where this dislike rears its nasty head. As Ruby begins private tuition with tough-loving teacher Mr Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) to prepare for an audition at a prestigious music college, the teen tells the tutor that she “talked funny” like a deaf person when she first started school – something which, in her words, sounded “wrong” and “ugly”. It’s unabashed, unchallenged audism and oralism with the potential to foster damaging impressions of what are known as ‘Deaf accents’ (see the community’s strong hatred of the backhanded compliment that we “speak well for a Deaf person”).
Unfortunately, with a hearing writer and director at the helm – this being Tallulah and Orange is the New Black scriptwriter Siân Heder – mistakes and flaws in describing the experiences of Deaf people and CODAs were inevitable. Fisherman father Frank (Kotsur) speaks his mind, not least in the form of toilet humour (a fart effect is very clearly edited in at the beginning) and detailed descriptions of specific body parts (you know which ones), and for a film which bills itself as a comedy, it’s more immature and unnecessary than anything else. We’re endeared to him more when he begins to form a closer bond to Ruby and her singing as the narrative progresses.
Certainly more than Mum Jackie (Matlin), who distances herself from her daughter’s love of music pretty quickly, asking at one point if Ruby would take up painting if she was blind, which is perhaps another icky line in the script in hindsight.
There is an idea suggested in Matlin’s character that she sees music as a hearing product, not something to be – and which can be – enjoyed by Deaf people. She quite clearly doesn’t want Ruby to abandon the Deaf community as a result of her decision to pursue a career in music. All of this makes for an interesting watch, but its resolution is one which is, again, themed around the Deaf person making the concession and putting themselves down in order for Ruby to succeed. “You’re brave, not like me,” says Jackie, as she also suggests that she is a bad mother to her. At its most severe, CODA presents the needs and views of Deaf people as inconvenient, burdensome and outlandish.
With that being said, there are moments when the awkwardness of inaccessibility lends itself to some clever and amusing scenes. The naive enthusiasm which can come with hearing people asking to be taught inappropriate signs, and learning phrases through YouTube tutorials, are skewered when school friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth) asks how to flirt with Ruby’s brother Leo (Daniel Durand), and ‘Mr V’ signs an alternative to ‘nice to meet you’ with an unintended expletive. When Frank and Jackie attend a performance of Ruby’s choir, they decide to use the time to discuss what they’ll be having for dinner (it’s spaghetti, by the way).
If you can suspend disbelief and adopt a laissez faire approach when watching CODA, then it perhaps makes for a relatively mild watch. Jones has a remarkable voice, ‘dinner table syndrome’ is explored well, and the romantic subplot is easy for audiences to invest themselves in (the cliff-jumping almost asking as an apt metaphor for leaping into the unknown).
The laid-back viewing is strained, though, when it continues to hammer home the issue of a CODA interpreting in instances where a qualified individual isn’t provided. At informal meetings about fishing quotas and a school performance, fair enough, but when they’re in a more professional setting such as a court? A failure to provide a qualified interpreter gets a little harder to believe – and I say that as a Deaf person who writes a lot about an over-reliance on CODAs and the absence of the appropriate communication support. Similarly, when it comes to Ruby’s audition, a surprise twist (no spoilers) left me wondering why it hadn’t been implemented sooner in an earlier performance.
Then again, with reference to what some people are already saying online, these issues may not be particularly noticeable to a typical (and passive) hearing viewer whom, I concur, CODA is predominantly for. It’s perhaps why, if pushed, I could award it the same star rating as its Amazon Prime counterpart, Sound of Metal.
Yet I am, of course, minded to review it from a Deaf perspective – albeit not as a CODA, for I am a moderately deaf individual born to hearing parents. As I write this now, I think about what hearing individuals might take away from the watch other than it being a fairly average film. It’s this: that Deaf people are a barrier or inconvenience for others looking to achieve a specific goal. The right approach – that is, one which sees hearing people work to dismantle the communication barriers and audism faced by Deaf people – is only given a smattering of frames.
What we’re given instead is a narrative in which Deaf people have to settle for the inaccessible environment around them in order for a hearing individual, Ruby, to have any real sense of fulfilment or character development. Anything else is an inconvenience or, in the narrative of this hearing-led, hearing-directed film, antagonistic. All of this undermines an otherwise brilliant move from the team to ‘burn in’ the subtitles for the movie into every screening.
The main character of Ruby longs to be centre stage, but CODA shines completely the wrong light on how to tackle inaccessibility, in a negligence which is both harmful and dangerous for an impressionable hearing audience.
Production Images: Apple TV+