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Film Review: CODA
by Karen Pecota

Based on the award-winning French film La famille bélier (The Belier family), filmmaker Siân Heder (Tallulah, Little America) is petitioned to write and direct a similar storyline for her latest narrative feature film CODA.

The producers Philippe Rousselet of Vendôme Pictures, along with his partners at Pathé Films and the Lionsgate co-chairman Patrick Wachsberger searched for a filmmaker to translate one of the companies' biggest European hits for U.S. audiences. Heder appeared on their radar and they quickly snatched her up to make their wish a reality. Rousselet says, "Siân Heder is a brilliant writer and director with a true talent for getting to the emotional core of her characters." Adding, "She was not only able to translate the essence of the French Belier family to the American Rossi family but to truly transform it, transcending the original film to make CODA one of a kind."

Thanks to the audience and jury of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival who turned CODA into a darling of its own making way for Apple TV to purchase the film for distribution. A milestone was made due to the purchase of CODA as the highest paid festival film in the forty-year Sundance history. Imagine the pride felt from the French producers when their European box-office darling La famille bélier could become a U.S. darling under Heder's talent. Time will only tell!

One endearing quality of the film was how Heder and her screenplay were able to showcase an impressive cast of deaf and hearing actors. All of them seasoned performers, including Academy Award®-winner Marlee Matlin, each make their character relatable. Heder says, "It was never an option for me to make this movie with hearing actors playing deaf people." Adding, "Not only are we in a time where it feels entirely unacceptable to do that, I personally didn't want to do that because I wanted to tell an authentic story." Heder notes, "I started from scratch in terms of coming up with these characters and it was important to me to develop the deaf characters fully."

How did Heder do this? She spent time studying Deaf Culture in order to be informed and to write with a perspective that was real. Heder took American Sign Language classes. She interviewed several within the deaf community and hearing children of deaf adults, known as CODAs. Heder attended Deaf West plays in Los Angeles, read books, and asked her deaf friends to read her script and give their opinion. Heder shares, "I was not a part of Deaf Culture, and I knew I needed to immerse myself to get this right."

One of my favorite scenes in the film is an example of how she gets it right. You will see for yourself Heder's awesome sensitivity toward developing her characters and the confidence to use her intuition to express a telling message. It's a surprise to the senses.


Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a high school senior but no ordinary teenager. At 3:00 am she wakes up to prepare for work on her family's fishing vessel to bring in their daily catch to market. It will last the early morning hours before heading to school. When the catch of the day is brought in, Ruby unassumingly goes about her early morning routine as she helps her brother, Leo Rossi (Daniel Durrant) and father, Frank Rossi (Troy Kotsur) on the fish docks as their interpreter getting the best price for their catch. Ruby is a hearing child in an all deaf family. Ruby is a CODA (child of deaf adults). Once she bargains for the best price possible for their fish, Ruby rushes to school, falls asleep in class, then after school heads home to do homework, hangs with her best friend Gertie (Amy Forsyth), then gets ready to do it all over again the following day.

Ruby's one outlet is her love for music. She dreams of using her musical talent in song somehow and in some way but her dream dies hard when she is thrust back to reality. Ruby's anxiety festers harboring more fear than joy at the thought of pursing her own path in music because she is the family's dutiful child and fulfills her obligations with a natural satisfaction. The success of their family business depends on her negotiation skills in the hearing world. It's undue pressure but lived with it her whole life. So, periodically she chooses to have a little fun within their unique dynamics. But Ruby understands the sacrifices they each make to attain a productive but meager livelihood.

As a typical teenager with high aspirations, Ruby keeps her dreams alive and joins the school choir. Truth be known, it's mostly because of the crush she has on fellow senior classmate, Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who has also joined. Nervous to sing in front of the school's music director, Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), known as Mr. "V" when asked as well as, in front of her choir mates, Ruby panics and runs out of the room. Ruby tries again to suppress her anxiety in order to stay in the class. Over time Mr. "V" sees great potential in Ruby's musical talent and encourages her to apply for a scholarship at his alma mater, Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music.

Family tensions rise when Ruby shares with her family the desire to go to college to study music. A silent hell breaks out! It's fear of the unknown! Each Rossi family member reacts to the shock and it is not cordial. Gertie's input on Ruby's aspirations turns out to be the buffer the Rossi family needs in order to look at Ruby differently. The annual school concert is the catalyst that brings the Rossi family to a better understanding that a new lease on life could be possible for each member, as well as the business.