Music is Everything- a review of the film CODA

The Oscar-winning film showcases the intersections of hearing loss and music within a touching story of family and growing up.

[from left to right] Gertie (Amy Forsyth), Ruby's best friend; Leo Rossi (Daniel Durant), Ruby's brother; Jackie Rossie (Marlee Matlin), Ruby's mother; Frank Rossi (Troy Kotsur), Ruby's father. Still from the film CODA, copwright by Apple Inc. 2022
[from left to right] Gertie (Amy Forsyth), Ruby’s best friend; Leo Rossi (Daniel Durant), Ruby’s brother; Jackie Rossie (Marlee Matlin), Ruby’s mother; Frank Rossi (Troy Kotsur), Ruby’s father. Photo from the film CODA, © Apple Inc. 2022.

As a hearing person, I sat down to watch the film CODA to better understand the intersections between deafness and music. Written and directed by Siân Heder, the story follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), who is the only hearing member of an otherwise profoundly deaf family. Her father (Troy Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant) are fishermen, and Ruby works on the boat with them and interprets during sale negotiations and other important business transactions. Ruby loves to sing, and after she signs up for her high school choir, discovers that she has impressive musical talent― enough that the choir director (Eugenio Derbez) wants to help her audition for the Berklee College of Music. Her family, however, is not  allowed to operate the boat without a hearing person onboard and can’t afford to pay another deckhand. If Ruby leaves, the fishing business will go under and her family will lose their only source of income. Ruby must choose whether to stay and help her family or to leave and follow her dreams. 

Before I continue, I wanted to share that I have no personal experience with hearing loss or Deaf culture. I am a hearing woman, and my only exposure to Deaf culture has been through television and film media. I watched the television show Switched at Birth religiously in middle school, which features many deaf characters and actors. I’m a fan of deaf actress Lauren Ridloff in The Walking Dead and Marvel’s Eternals. Likewise, I love Marlee Matlin, who I’ve seen featured in Switched at Birth and The West Wing and plays Ruby’s mother in CODA. The short length of my list, however, is telling of how limited deaf representation is in pop culture. 

CODA is an excellent addition, and will hopefully be one of many more stories featuring deaf people, not just about Deaf culture, but about family, community, growing up, and underlying it all: music. The film is a demonstration of the interrelation of these elements, and the necessity of greater accessibility and understanding for people with hearing loss. 

Watching the film, you come to love the Rossi family, sympathizing with the difficulty of their situation. We feel for Ruby, who must sacrifice her time and energy to be the family interpreter, but we also feel for her family members, who are trying to succeed in a world which does not accommodate or support them. As a viewer, I was torn between Ruby’s choices, and recognized that a real solution requires recognizing the strengths and limitations of all people, complicating and challenging societal conceptions of “disability.”

[Warning, spoilers ahead!] Likewise, the film shows how people who are deaf experience music, answering Ruby’s classmate Miles’s question, not unusual for the hearing world: “Do they, like, even get what music is?” They do. Ruby’s father, Frank, loves gangster rap, and blasts it to feel the vibrations of the bass while driving their family truck (much to Ruby’s embarrassment when he picks her up at school). Likewise, when Ruby’s family attends her choir concert, we move into Frank’s perspective. Ruby’s soulful singing voice fades to silence as Frank looks around the auditorium. He can’t hear his daughter, but he can see the reaction of the crowd: people smiling, wiping tears, bopping their heads and clapping. He can see how people are moved by Ruby’s music, and he understands her talent. After the concert, Ruby and Frank sit together on the flatbed of his truck, and he asks her to sing for him. He touches her throat, feeling the vibrations of the notes and lyrics, experiencing and understanding the music. It’s an emotionally moving moment, only surpassed by Ruby’s audition for Berklee. Her family sneaks into the upper balcony to watch her sing “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. As she sings, she looks up at her family and signs the words in ASL. CODA emphasizes the importance of family, in all shapes and combinations, and the importance of music, in all its forms― as something everyone can experience and love in their own way.

Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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