For the past five years, Hollywood has been talking about representation, diversity, and inclusion on a seemingly regular basis. Unfortunately, most don’t realize that being inclusive or having representation goes beyond race, gender, and sexual orientation. To be truly inclusive, one must include those with physical or mental disabilities and various body types. As someone who has been an advocate for inclusivity for several years, I am shocked by how little has been done after years of this ongoing conversation. Major studios may believe they deserve a pat on the back for creating big-budget films with a few notable actors of color. However, they seem to be focused solely on franchise projects or films that will get them awards consideration. However, the world needs more everyday stories representing ordinary people, including those in excluded or marginalized communities. This is a big reason I’m so thankful for independent films and filmmakers because they seem to be the only ones who get it.
When I read the plot description for CODA, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. I saw Sian Heder’s directorial debut Tallulah back at Sundance in 2016, and I remember liking it, but it didn’t stick with me. Within ten minutes of CODA, I had already fallen in love with the film, its characters, and the story. On the surface, CODA may seem like your typical coming-of-age story, but when you realize the film embraces the deaf community, you start to ask yourself, “Why aren’t there more films like this?” You see, CODA tackles many common themes we have seen before; however, the way the film is written and the community on which it is focused makes these tropes feel entirely fresh and new. Sure, the movie is a crowd-pleaser, but why do films highlighting inclusion need to be downers or big-budget spectacles? There are more options out there, ones really worth championing.
Emilia Jones plays Ruby, the only hearing child in a deaf family. She feels obligated to protect her family from the world around them because she is too afraid they will be taken advantage of. Ruby is a well-rounded and deeply nuanced character because she is both written and portrayed by Jones. There are so many moments sprinkled throughout the film where you see her struggles, whether her interactions with kids at school or one-on-one conversations with her mom and dad. Ruby is a person who is trying to take care of her family while trying to juggle her own dreams and future. Again, these may seem like common tropes, but how Heder writes the characters and situations makes it all the more impactful.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is Ruby and a classmate, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), talking after a fight. Miles tells Ruby her life seems perfect because her parents are still in love fully, not realizing what life has been like to grow up in a household where most of the communication has gone through her. This scene is only made more powerful later in the film when Ruby and her mother, Jackie, played brilliantly by the one and only Marlee Matlin, have a heart-to-heart conversation where she asks her mom if she wishes that she was born deaf. These moments all come off as genuine and make the average viewer think about what life must be like not only for Ruby but for her entire family.
Helping CODA immensely is how the deaf characters are rightfully portrayed as everyday people. They are fishermen, and they work just as hard as everyone else. They aren’t looking for a handout, they aren’t ashamed of who they are, and they certainly are not trying to use their disabilities as selling points. I love seeing characters like the ones in CODA who are proud of who they are. This messaging is very similar to that of Sound of Metal, but it is more accessible to a much wider audience this time.
The performances in CODA are all absolutely incredible and award-worthy. I realize we aren’t even out of the current awards season, but man, it would be a crime if this film doesn’t get some recognition at this time next year. As the parents, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin, are absolutely incredible in this. They bring such humor, heart, and honesty to their performances. I loved their chemistry with one another and their relationship with Ruby and her brother, Leo. Speaking of Leo, I also found Daniel Durant to be quite brilliant, especially as the film progresses and shows his character’s growth.
Still, the film’s real standout is Emila Jones, who is nothing short of a revelation. This is one hell of a breakthrough performance that I will be championing for the rest of the year. It is one thing to play a likable character, but when your character has so much depth and range the way this character does, it is nearly impossible to pull that off. Jones is absolutely flawless in her performance, and her singing voice had me repeatedly saying “wow” out loud.
Writer/director Sian Heder should be so proud of what she achieved with this film. It is beautifully written and directed. The tone is perfect as it mixes comedy with drama seamlessly. I applaud Heder for working with deaf actors and go above and beyond to learn ASL for the project. The level of authenticity that she has brought to this story should be embraced and celebrated. I can only hope that this film opens doors for more stories to be made highlighting and featuring deaf actors. These are important stories to tell as they educate the public while also giving back to these underrepresented communities. We should be so thankful that filmmakers like Heder aren’t afraid to step up to the plate and make films that aren’t afraid to embrace inclusivity.
Before bringing this review to a close, I must point out that you should have tissues nearby during the film’s final 20 minutes. I was moved to tears and cried a lot. This is the sort of film that sneaks up on you where you don’t expect to get emotional, but the script, acting, and use of music are so good that you can’t help but get caught up in the moment. Don’t worry; it is a happy cry and, without question, earned, but I was shocked by how emotional I got watching this. I honestly couldn’t stop the waterworks, which only made me appreciate the film’s effectiveness even more.
CODA is officially the first must-see film of 2021 and the best film to open Sundance since Whiplash back in 2014. Heder is definitely a filmmaker on the rise and will be a name you will hear a lot in the months ahead. It isn’t every day the feel-great film of the year celebrates inclusivity. This is the sort of project that should be praised and celebrated. It is what the world needs and deserves. CODA will be hard to top as not only the best film out of Sundance but of the entire year!