The new AppleTV+ movie CODA is a heartwarming coming-of-age tale about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a CODA or Child Of Deaf Adults. As the only hearing member of a culturally deaf family, Ruby dreams of heading off to music school, but she knows that her seafaring New England family will lose their interpreter in a world that is not always accessible to them.
The French dramedy, which translates to The Bélier Family, also centres on a teenage girl who is the only hearing member of a culturally deaf family. Like Ruby, she also discovers she has the gift of singing, but knows she is an integral part of her family's farm. In a sign of the times, the film's deaf parents were played by hearing actors, which The Guardian called "yet another cinematic insult to the deaf community."
That kind of casting was something CODA star Marlee Matlin would not stand for. Thirty-five years ago, Matlin became the first and only deaf performer to win a Best Actress Oscar. When she heard that the studio behind CODA was considering hiring a hearing actor to play her husband. "I said, ‘Thank you, but I’m out.’ ” Matlin, who plays Jackie, Ruby's (sometimes) overbearing mum, told The Hollywood Reporter. The film's director agreed: “I truly felt like I would rather see the movie not get made than to see the movie get made with hearing actors."
Unlike it's source material, CODA offers a more nuanced portrayal of the deaf community led by actors who are culturally deaf. Three out of the film's four leads are deaf: Matlin; Troy Kotsur as Frank, Ruby's fisherman dad; and newcomer Daniel Durant as Ruby's older brother Leo, who is looking to take on more family responsibility.
"We have a very long history in movies where characters that are deaf happen to be victims and to be pitied and need help," Kotsur recently told NPR in American Sign Language (ASL). But, "they can be heroes," The Mandalorian actor continued, "They can be successful. They can work in whatever field. They just happen to be deaf."
The three actors who star in CODA happen to be deaf and also happen to carry the film. "And we’re carrying it 100 percent authentically,” Matlin said.
Forty percent of the script is in ASL, which is the third-most-studied language in American universities, according to Modern Language Association. Not to mention, the characters use sign language that is specific to the film's locale, the Massachusetts city of Gloucester, known for its fishing heritage. “It’s a good experience for the audience to come into deaf culture and get an inside view of what it looks like," Kotsur told The Associated Press.
Keep an eye on the film's set design, too. Heder told THR that it was specifically set up for a deaf family who need to have "sight lines to the entrances and exits" being that they would not hear someone leaving or entering a room. “It was like this ‘of course’ moment," the director said of moving the Rossi family's couch so it would face the front door.
It's unfortunately rare that actors who are deaf get to play deaf roles. One in four American adults are living with a disability, including deafness, according to the CDC. However, just 2.7% of characters in the 100 highest-earning movies in 2016 were disabled, according to a 2017 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Even last year's Best Picture Oscar nominee Sound of Metal, a film that looks at a drummer suffering with drug addiction and unexpected hearing loss, stars a hearing actor in Riz Ahmed. It's why CODA stands out, even to Matlin, who has long been fighting for deaf inclusion in Hollywood. "To have a hearing actor put on a deaf character as if it was a costume. I think we've moved beyond that point now," she told The Hollywood Reporter. “We’re talking about a new generation of viewers.”