Winner of the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture, Sian Heder’s film CODA is an emotionally-packed exploration of the self, typical in coming-of-age cinema. As a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), Ruby is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When her family’s fishing business is in danger of being shut down, Ruby finds herself torn between her passion for music and her guilt at abandoning her parents.
CODA: The Nuances of Family Dynamics
The foremost thing about CODA that struck me was its emotional conflict. Ruby has grown up as her family’s interpreter, their metaphorical window to the outside world. There is a touching scene where Ruby asks her mother (Jackie) whether she had wanted Ruby to be born deaf like the rest of them. Jackie explained her covert disappointment when she realised that Ruby’s hearing abilities were normal.
This does not make Jackie a bad mother. Instead, it highlights the tendency of most parents to project their fears on their children. Jackie was afraid she would not connect with her abled daughter, just as her abled mother had not connected with her disability.
At one point in the movie, Ruby shares her passion with Jackie, to which Jackie responds:
“You’re a teenager. If I was blind, would you want to paint?”
Ruby’s question spoke to me on multiple levels:
“Why is it always about you?”
Her parents want the best for her. At the same time, they are afraid of losing her and perhaps of losing their only tangible connection to the world. They learn to let go of their daughter by the film’s end because their love for her overpowers their insecurities. A conversation between Ruby’s parents goes like this:
“Our baby’s gone!”
“She’s not a baby.”
“She’s my baby!”
“She was never a baby.”
On Making Choices
CODA is a very realistic depiction of family problems. Ruby is the main character, but Frank, Leo, and Jackie are equally compelling and fleshed out as characters. They have their dreams, sensitivities, and worries.
We see Ruby experiencing pangs of guilt at having to leave her family behind to manage their trouble-ridden occupations independently. When I left my hometown to pursue my bachelor’s degree, I was also faced with guilt. As an only child, I am aware of my parents’ dependence on me. But, like Ruby, I knew I had to leave so I could become my own person.
People glorify selflessness to an extent where the word has entirely lost its meaning. Human nature does not run on binaries; almost everything is a spectrum. A thin line separates the positive from the negative.
Making choices is hard. But it is the only thing that will take you somewhere.
On Finding your “Voice”
Ruby tells her choir teacher, Mr. Bernardo Villalobos (or Mr. V), that she fears singing in front of crowds because kids used to make fun of her speech when she was younger. Later, when Mr. V asks her–
“How do you feel when you sing?”
Ruby hesitates at first.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s hard to explain.”
Mr. V tells her to try, and Ruby uses sign language to convey her feelings. Not a single word is uttered, but we get it. We get what she means, and Mr. V gets it too. The untangling of knots in the stomach; the sensation of floating away; we get it all.
Ruby chooses to speak out her deepest emotions, the crux of her being, in the language that comes naturally. There is another scene where she begins to use sign language during her audition at Berklee so her family in the audience can understand the words of her song. The freedom of using a language she connects with profoundly adds to the expressiveness of her voice.
CODA and the Art of Communication:
CODA celebrates the human ability to communicate despite linguistic barriers. It also explores our innate desire to be understood. Ruby’s father wishes to know the meaning of the song Ruby performs in her duet. Ruby replies, “It was about… what it is to need another person.”
I was reminded of a random quote that became quite popular on social media. Twitter user @drthema tweeted in April 2018:
“I hope you find someone who speaks your language so you don’t have to spend a lifetime translating your spirit.”
We cannot expect people to understand everything we mean and do in real life intuitively. It is natural to desire an attempt to dig deeper.
Sometimes, the language of our soul is too complex to settle in pre-configured moulds. Sometimes, the language which comes to us naturally does not find a listener in our immediate surroundings. Perhaps, the message is to keep looking. Keep looking for the ones who want to understand.
Relationships take conscious work from both ends. By translating her song into a language her family understands, Ruby meets them halfway in their relationship. By understanding Ruby’s passion for something they can never really be a part of, her family meets her halfway too.
CODA is a charming drama about a dysfunctional family. It navigates familiar issues, veering close to the tried-and-tested formula of other coming-of-age classics. But there’s no shame in a formula done well, and CODA is a deeply satisfying rendition of this formula. It’s an achievement of sorts—a display of craft that’s also a kind of craftiness—to establish a level of predictability that guarantees a payoff and maintains a low simmer of suspense.
Ruby learns to transition seamlessly between two languages and a dual existence. This film is about deaf people and their integration into society, but it’s not a quiet film. It is a simple but rich story told tenderly. It also displays significant merit by offering prominent and vital roles to three deaf actors of remarkable talent.
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About the Author
Vaishnavi Singh is a lover of poetry and literature. She is currently pursuing a major in English and a minor in sociology. Vaishnavi has always been passionate about improving the world around her, one step at a time, and she hopes her time with The International Prism will contribute to that goal.
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