Heder’s film does one better right out of the gate by doing the deaf community the basic courtesy of casting deaf actors in the key roles, but it also serves up many more surprises in this tale of coming-of-age and chasing your dreams.
Massachusetts teenager Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a Child of Deaf Adults, acting as interpreter for her parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) around their local town, doubling up as radio operator on their fishing boat. But when Ruby belatedly embraces her love of singing and starts being tutored by her demanding choir master (Eugenio Derbez) for a highly competitive audition for a music school, she has to decide between pursuing her passions and supporting her family who are facing tough times ahead to keep their small business afloat.
While criticisms from some deaf commentators and real-life Children of Deaf Adults of the Rossi family’s insular, selfish portrayal are understandable (Ruby’s mum is of the view that unless something can be enjoyed by the whole family on the same level then it shouldn’t be in their orbit), these are very human character flaws. Even aside from the harsh reality of the Rossis wanting to avoid the added financial burden of hiring a paid interpreter, people aren’t perfect, parents and children unintentionally hurt each other’s feelings all the time, and a kid’s need for independence is often at odds with a parent’s need to protect them.
Whether or not the family’s disappointing initial reaction to Ruby getting serious about something she is really good at rings true for you, the film still packs a big old emotional wallop with its genuine and natural performances, particularly that of lead Emilia Jones and the excellent central trio of Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant.
It has been a big couple of years for mainstream deaf representation on film and TV. From hearing loss-centric stories like Sound of Metal to the prominence of characters played by deaf actors Alaqua Cox and Lauren Ridloff in Marvel’s ‘Hawkeye’ and Eternals, to even the boldness of an almost entirely silent episode of ‘Only Murders in the Building’ fronted by James Caverly. CODA star Troy Kotsur has commented in interviews on roles for deaf actors being limited and perfunctory, patronisingly using their difference as a plot device and as a source of pity. Clearly tides are turning in this regard, slowly but surely.