The 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicks off with a doozy, a serenade to unique family bonds in CODA, about a teenage girl named Ruby who serves as translator to her deaf father, mother, and brother. Featuring a star-making performance by Emilia Jones, CODA is a true crowd-pleaser from writer/director Siân Heder.
Easy to love and even easier to enjoy, CODA may attempt to bite off more than it can chew, but its qualities outweigh its more melodramatic elements. Heder stacks the deck with enough plot elements for three films and successfully juggles them all, even if she leans into some stories more than others.
As a family drama, in which Jones plays the only hearing member of her family (CODA stands for Child of a Deaf Adults), CODA comes off as most comfortable, Heder’s attention to detail and determination to present a deep, organic, and utterly believable dynamic the undercurrent for the story. Jones is simply fantastic, but Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, and Daniel Durant (all deaf in real life) are terrific as well. The chemistry between the four seems real, charged with the electricity of family members that love one another intensely and yet strained to the breaking point.
There’s less chemistry between Ruby and love interest Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the actor stubbornly subdued compared to his role in Sing Street). But Heder seems largely disinterested in telling a romantic story, giving the two surprisingly little time on screen together other than a few surface-level sequences intended to convince us they’re into each other. It’s surprising she even bothered to introduce a romantic angle at all.
A more important element is music, however, and while CODA may not handle Ruby’s arc from shy deckhand to budding singer with much nuance, the movie will give most audiences exactly what they’re looking for. While I wish Heder would have gone a less conventional route–a teenager looking to go to an exclusive college for the gifted despite life’s hard knocks is unfortunately stands out as cliche against the rest of CODA’s plot (capped by a feel-good climax in which nearly everyone she adores cheesily shows up at just the right time to help her out)–Heder nonetheless makes it work. The musical number at the end will give you the right kind of chills, and Heder seems to know just how to pluck the heartstrings.
And yet, the strength of the movie is the dynamic between the family. CODA is surprisingly funny; Heder, of course, treats her cast members’ deafness as not so much a gift as a simple reality, one that introduces its own elements of humor into certain situations (like Ruby’s parents going at it, loudly, unaware that she has a friend visiting in the next room over).
Highly entertaining and a crowd-pleaser through and through, CODA is a wonderful drama that, while not perfect, his the high notes, even if you can’t always hear them.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.