This is an important film. And a joyful film. Everyone should see it. We can learn a lot from watching it. In particular it helps us to stand in the shoes of someone different and see life from a new vantage point. What can be more important than that?
The story revolves around a loving and fighting family where 3 people are deaf and 1 is hearing. Each character is forced to confront the point of view of at least one other person. Isn’t that films are all about? That is what I loved about this film. That and it made me feel good.
In the film, Ruby, (Emilia Jones) the only hearing person in a close knit family of 4 decides to join a school choir mainly to meet a good looking young guy. Her mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) is confused. Why would she do that? She asks her daughter, “If I was blind, would you like to paint?” It is a joke, but it raises a crucial point. The mother can’t understand why her hearing daughter doesn’t want to be just like them. Jackie also said that when her daughter was born she hoped she would be deaf so she would be just like her mom. I was shocked by that comment. Yet, film made it clear that deaf people don’t see themselves as defective or handicapped. They think they are lucky. There are many things hearing people can’t do that they can do. She wants the best for her daughter, and to her, that is being deaf.
Ruby on the other hand learns that she loves music and is pretty good at it. Her music teacher challenges her to overcome her fears of performing. He asks her how music makes her feel. She can’t find the words. That is exactly what deaf people do; they can’t find the words either. Eventually, Ruby signs her reply that for her American sign language is the language of feelings and expressions. That is one thing hearing people don’t get. I also think she means that this is also true for music.
The deaf members of the family don’t catch on that Ruby likes being their interpreter, but she wants more than that. She also wants a relationship with a young boy and does not want to give up everything for her family. Her family must learn that. Only her brother understands. In fact, he resents the fact that Ruby is turned to whenever family members need to communicate with the outside world. He wants to do that, even though is he is deaf.
I read that the producers of Coda wanted to use hearing people for the role of deaf people. Matlin was upset at that. She insisted that deaf characters must be played by deaf actors. As Matlin said,
“Enough is enough. Deaf is not a costume. It’s not authentic and insults the community that you’re portraying. Because we exist, we deaf actors. We do a much better job of portraying characters, telling stories that involve deaf characters, because we lived it. We know it.”
When she won an academy award for her first role in the film Children of a Lesser God a movie critic said she won the award out of pity. He asked how was it acting for her to play a role of a deaf girl? To this Matlin responded, how then was it acting for a hearing girl to play a hearing girl? Sometimes hearing people just are not able to stand in the shoes of a deaf person. That is a failure of imagination. And it works both ways.
The beauty of Coda is that we do experience what it means to be deaf. I loved the scene in which the family went to a concert where Ruby was playing. At first the deaf people did not get it either. They too had a failure of imagination. But they watched the faces of the audience and they knew what their hearing child/sibling was doing just by watching. They could see she was special. Just like they were special.
Deaf is not a costume; neither is hearing. Neither the deaf nor the hearing are children of a lesser God.