“CODA” may be the most radical Oscar contender this year.
Writer-director Sian Heder tells Variety, “We told a simple story about family dynamics. I was trying to portray a complicated family that felt real.”
She’s right: The structure is straightforward and the story is indeed simple, about a hearing daughter from a deaf family who wants to pursue her own career.
But the film is revolutionary because it centers on a deaf family. Has any other film in Hollywood history offered such insights into the daily lives of deaf people? Most films ignore them; if a film does depict a deaf person, they’re usually alone — and usually played by a hearing actor. Deafness is a “problem” to be overcome, usually with the help of the hearing characters.
Marlee Matlin, who plays the matriarch in “CODA,” says: “Sian put these characters front and center, that’s part of the film’s appeal; audiences haven’t seen this before; this movie fulfills the thirst of audiences for something new.”
Heder adds: “The story is about a family struggling with all sorts of things. Being deaf is part of their identity, but it’s not what defines them as characters. The Rossis’ deafness is not what they’re struggling with.”
Emilia Jones plays Ruby Rossi, a CODA (child of deaf adults), the only hearing person in her family. Her mother, dad and brother are played respectively by Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, who are deaf/hard of hearing in real life.
Authentic casting seems like a no-brainer, but “CODA” is based on a 2014 French film “La Famille Belier,” in which most deaf characters were played by hearing actors.
When doing research, Heder spent a lot of time with the deaf community, which cemented her instincts for an authentic remake. The studio Lionsgate wanted hearing actors to play the family, and a pop star to play Ruby.
“That wasn’t the film I wanted to make,” says Heder.
So when exec Patrick Wachsberger left Lionsgate, he took “CODA” and found financing via Europe’s Vendome and Pathé. Heder says, “It was amazing to find financiers who believed in the movie. Philippe Rousselet, one of the ‘CODA’ producers, was a producer of ‘La Famille.’ He was so excited by the change — to take story and do it in a way that felt more authentic.”
“CODA” is airing on Apple TV Plus and works like gangbusters in home viewing; in a theater, there’s the bonus of hearing audiences laugh throughout the film until they start weeping.
“CODA” was voted audience favorite at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as winning three other awards — for directing, special jury and grand jury prizes.
“I think one of the reasons people react so strongly is because it’s so funny; it’s not pushing for emotions,” Heder says.
Matlin says the “CODA” dynamics are similar to two very different films: “Parasite” and “Minari,” which were about families that were unique but somehow universal.
The film’s insights into deaf culture are a welcome antidote to such past Oscar honorees as “Johnny Belinda” (best actress winner Jane Wyman), “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (Alan Arkin), “Babel” (Rinko Kikuchi) and comedies including “Murder by Death” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”
It’s nice to think “CODA” will be a turning point in authentic casting — or is that too optimistic?
“You can’t be too optimistic,” Matlin says. “You have a right to be optimistic. People give speeches about how great it is to see authentic casting, but I’ve yet to see it happen in a huge way, for all under-represented groups. We cannot sit back any longer. This has ignited a fire you can’t put out.”
Heder adds: “The way studio movies have been financed is problematic for authentic casting and under-represented groups. There’s a scramble to get movie stars and we’re missing out on incredible, authentic actors.”
Matlin concludes, “We need to put responsibility on these stars: They can make things happen. It should be on their shoulders too.”