How Deaf performers elevate a conventional family drama (podcast transcript).

On this week’s episode of the Culture Gabfest, Karen Han, Marissa Martinelli, and June Thomas were joined by writer Sara Nović to discuss the Sundance hit film CODA. This transcript been edited and condensed for clarity.

Karen Han: CODA is directed by Sian Heder and stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a young girl who is the only hearing member of a Deaf family. Her parents—Frank, played by Troy Kotsur, and Jackie, played by Marlee Matlin—and older brother, Leo, played by Daniel Durant, are all culturally Deaf. The story revolves around her discovering her talent for and passion for singing and how that threatens to pull her away from her family, especially as their fishing business goes independent.

To start, I’d love to hear your general impressions of the movie. I watched it for the first time a couple of nights ago, and I thought it was amazing. What did you guys make of it?

Marissa Martinelli: First, this was a big deal at the Sundance Film Festival. It won a bunch of awards there and was acquired for $25 million, which for such a small family drama is a big deal. The other thing that listeners should know is that this is a remake of a French film, La Famille Bélier, but in translating the movie for an American audience, they made a lot of changes, the most fundamental of which is the casting. The original film cast hearing actors as the deaf family who are the main characters. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it is [to cast Deaf actors], and it’s something Marlee Matlin, one of the lead actresses, has been advocating for years. She really put her foot down and insisted on casting deaf actors. I think Troy Kotsur, who plays Ruby’s father, is very much the film’s standout. It’s hard to imagine this movie without him.

June Thomas: My first impression, before I read anything, was one of relating to the story, because I have some similar things in my life. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and a lot of the drama in this film is about how a hearing member of a Deaf family is different from them. Now, she’s always known that she’s different from them, they’ve always known that she’s different from them, but really the story is about that upcoming separation. She’s 17, the age where some kids might go to college, and some kids might leave home to work, or in this case join the family business. I had my own version of taking a different path from my family.

And then I started to read reviews by Deaf people—one from Jenna Beacom—and I’ll be honest, I felt a bit guilty, which is not the point—that’s irrelevant. But she pointed out some things that, as soon as she put it out there, I’m like, oh my goodness, yes! The film makes these Deaf people be powerless. They’re dependent on the hearing person in their family in a way that really valorizes the hearing and makes it seem like deaf people are incapable of self-sufficiency.

Sara Nović: It’s complicated for me, because, on the one the hand, we’re starved for representation in Hollywood. And often we’re cast just like in the French movie: If there are deaf characters, it’s a hearing person playing them, usually badly. And then when we do see ourselves, we have to contend with, like, “Oh, that’s what you think?” But at the same time, every time I see a deaf person on screen, I cry, pretty much, just because I get so excited, and this was no exception. Even when I saw Andrea Hall signing at the inauguration, I cried at that. Just anytime you get to see sign language on screen, I freak out. I’m rooting for that, so that happened here in CODA too. I love that. It’s kind of unprecedented to have three deaf leads in a movie.

And, obviously, Marlee Matlin is a legend. You almost expect her to be amazing—and she was—but really I think Troy was next-level. And then of course, when you see hearing people writing about it, they’re like the breakout star is Emilia. Emilia is talented, but she’s also kind of the straight man in the movie.

Martinelli: Emilia is Emilia Jones playing Ruby, the hearing character.

Thomas: Who I was surprised to learn is British. She learned to sign for the movie, but even if she had already known sign, she would have known British Sign Language. So she wouldn’t have been a native speaker of ASL anyway.

Martinelli: The title of the movie, CODA, stands for child of deaf adults, which is interesting in this case, because coda is also a musical term, and a major subplot of the French original and of this movie is that Ruby is a singer and wants to go to college for music. I have to say, when I heard that premise, I rolled my eyes, because there’s a little bit of a cutesy irony that assumes deaf people don’t appreciate music. The movie does engage with that a little bit, but I was surprised by how much this movie is very conventional in certain ways. You can almost predict, beat for beat, where it’s going. Ruby has an inspirational singing teacher who is coaching her through. They have a fishing boat—and they’re grappling with wider systemic issues in terms of lack of access, and there are apparently no interpreters in this CODA universe—but it’s still very conventional.

It reminded me in a lot of ways of Lady Bird, in terms of having a mother-daughter relationship where family obligation clashes with going away to college. In a lot of other ways, I feel like I’ve seen this movie a hundred times beyond the specificity of having a deaf family. You have Ruby’s crush, you know how that’s going to work out. Ruby’s relationship with her mom, that’s how this is going to work out.

Thomas: Yeah. Again, I’m seeing it all in terms of my own life, but it also reminded me of movies like Brassed Off or Kinky Boots even, where there’s some kind of art form that allows a young person to move out of their narrow little community, which is such a cliché, but at the same time, it’s often rousing.

Nović: Yeah. It’s pretty much beat for beat Billy Elliot. It’s particularly frustrating for deaf people, though; because we have such little screen time, it’s a confirmation bias where people are like, “Oh, poor deaf people.” It’s a weird thing to say to someone’s face, but so many times people come up to me and say, “I would just die if I couldn’t hear music.” People really think that, so to have that on the screen is annoying. I actually think the story of a first-gen college student, just without the music—she could have been studying anything—is more compelling, anyway. Maybe that’s also my own bias as a first-gen college student. But I don’t think that we needed the music part for this to be an interesting story.

I think the family is interesting. I think the conflict of the business is interesting. I think all of the lack of access stuff is compelling … if the movie had been set 40 years ago, when that was actually the case. Pre-ADA, of course, people are relying on family members to get interpreters. Today, if you don’t get a court interpreter, that’s super illegal. So part of me wondered if there was a deaf writer of the movie that they would right away be like, “Oh, this doesn’t make sense.” I actually just assumed it was set in the past, until Leo took out his iPhone. And I was like, “Wait, what? You’ve had that the whole time!”

Han: The music feels more like a way to sell the story than something that necessarily helps it along. Even the ultimate ending of the movie—which I won’t spoil—also felt too cut and dry to me. I almost thought they were going to go another route with it, but then it goes in a very typical direction, which was a little disappointing. The strength of the performances, especially Troy Kotsur, but also Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant, made me feel like these performers can give a lot more to the story than is necessarily available to them.

Martinelli: One thing I loved about Marlee Matlin’s character in particular is that she seemed to be having fun. She tends to play very much more buttoned-up characters, and to see her be kind of messy was enjoyable for me, because she does it so well.

Nović: Yeah. It’s really nice to see deaf joy, definitely something that we see in this movie. If we get portrayed on film and TV, you get a discrimination story, something horrible happening to you. They were having fun in this movie. They were having sex in this movie, which is another thing. Deaf people usually end up as like Tiny Tim syndrome, where you’re just kind of asexual, very innocent or sexually abused, which is also a true problem for kids who are cut off from communication from adults they trust. But this was fun and different from what we normally see, which I really enjoyed.

Martinelli: Sara, was there anything you noticed about the sign in the film that we may have missed as hearing people who don’t sign?

Nović: Troy is just such an amazing signer. There are different continuum gradients of ASL like there are in any language. In his ASL, he’s almost like a poet when he’s just talking. In ASL you have matching hand shapes and hand movements that feel like they would rhyme almost. And, his ASL is just really beautiful. There’s a scene where he’s talking about a condom. I was on the floor laughing. And also thinking, How were they ever going to get a hearing guy to do this? because so much of ASL is descriptive classifiers, which are like specialized pronouns that you use to describe the quality of things. It’s not like a one-to-one translation between words. There are signs that are like straightforward nouns, but then there’s all these different classifiers that you use to describe things. And that’s what Troy is so good at. And that’s what makes that scene so funny. You’d have to learn ASL for years and years and years and years [to get to that level]. He’s a native signer, obviously.

I hope that people watch this movie, because I think deaf actors deserve to be on screen, and these deaf actors were exceptional. And I also hope that people take this movie with a grain of salt, because deaf people are not a monolith, and they’re not helpless. I do actually think that the movie shows, in the end, that obviously they can do everything themselves. They were just scared, which is a human thing, not a deaf thing. So I hope that people will look out for that rather than just take the confirmation bias bait that is offered to them at times in the movie.

You can read Sara Nović’s interview with CODA star Marlee Matlin in Bustle: “Marlee Matlin Knows How to Make Change.” Listen to the full episode of the Culture Gabfest below.

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