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Sundance 2021 Review: CODA – “A layered and detailed story of an underrepresented community”

Emilia Jones appears in CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

CODA stands for Child Of Deaf Adults, and Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is just that, the only hearing member of her family.  Living in a small town in Massachusetts Ruby is a senior in high school, but that is only one of her many responsibilities.  The others largely involve working with her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) early in the mornings on their fishing vessel.  Ruby is an integral part of the business, helping to negotiate prices for the day’s catch at the auction house then heading off to school before coming home once again to their tight-knit family, including her mother, Jackie (Marlee Matlin).

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But despite not growing up with music as an integral part of her life (though her dad loves gangster rap since he can feel the bass vibrations), Ruby has been born with a gifted singing voice.  She plays her music loud and sings along during her time aboard the boat.  That voice grabs the attention of her choir teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) who feels she needs to cultivate her talent and encourages her to audition for the prestigious Berklee College of Music.  Just as Ruby is finding her voice and embracing her love of singing, the family business evolves, increasingly requiring Ruby to interpret between her deaf family and the community while forcing her to choose between them and her own dreams.

It doesn’t take long for us to be introduced to the soulful voice of Ruby and Emilia Jones shines in her role as the teenager. As the only hearing member of the household, Ruby has been forced to grow up faster than she should – ordering for the family at restaurants, interpreting (quite hilariously in one scene) at doctors appointments or at community meetings.  The family relies heavily upon her and Jones portrays her convincingly with winning likability and an undertone of vulnerability that shows the guilt and frustration Ruby feels wanting to break away from this constant pressure.  Jones learned American Sign Language (ASL) for the role, something she continues to learn to this day, which surely contributed to her easy chemistry with her three remarkable deaf co-stars.

Kotsur, Durant and Matlin (an Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God) make the Rossi family a delight to watch between family Tinder time at the dining room table and Frank and Jackie’s insatiable appetite for one another.  Yet they are all incredibly nuanced actors, especially in more serious conversations involving their codependency with Ruby and in trying to understand her love of music.  They create a family dynamic that is charismatic and intimate.  The casting of deaf actors in these roles was imperative – the only way this film feels genuine and the only way this film could be made.

Writer-director Siân Heder has created a film that, on its surface, is a solid, cleverly comedic family drama and coming of age tale.  There are certainly common themes and yes, it’s fairly formulaic.  There’s never any doubt as to where this story is headed, yet it excels in so many other aspects that it never gives in to over-sentimentality.  This is also a layered and detailed story of an underrepresented community.  Heder smartly uses sound to suggest just how loud a household can be when no one is trying to be quiet.  She’s also not afraid to take that sound away to create emotional impact.  This film shows us the incredible beauty of sign language and its ability to sometimes convey more than words while also demonstrating the ignorance and obstacles the deaf community face.  CODA is certainly a heartfelt and heartwarming crowd-pleaser, but it is one that deserves its audience for never being anything less than truly authentic.

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