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Sundance 2021: 'CODA' is a Punishingly Charming Indie Darling

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

I missed my opportunity to see CODA earlier on in the festival. The opening day saw rave reviews, and the premiere passed me by. The second screening, which I had planned to attend, sold out fast. People kept talking about how great it was and I grew irritated. By the time I got around to it on the last day, it had won about six of the main awards, and as a dedicated contrarian, I was determined to hate it.

Alas, there is no possible way to hate it. It is sweet, it is pleasant, and after all of the bleak, depressing films I’d seen in the past couple days, it was a benevolent sendoff from an extraordinary Sundance experience. I turned off my skepticism and rang in the final day of the festival with the uplifting candor of a young girl finding her voice (literally), as she pursues her dreams. The film is the follow-up of director Sian Heder’s Tallulah (2015), this time removing the drama from the Big Apple to the harbors of Gloucester, Massachusetts. 17-year-old Ruby (the wonderful Amelia Jones) is the hearing child of deaf parents who work on a fishing boat. She’s no good at school, she’s tentative in befriending her peers, and she’s accepted a future in continuing on with the family business. But Ruby is a great singer. An intuitive choir teacher sees her talent and pushes her to make her voice known.

As classic and trope-y as this set-up, Sian Heder’s key to making this one memorable is the thoughtful depiction of deaf family life. The relationship between her parents, Ruby’s self-inflicted sense of responsibility for them and her brother, and how her difficulty adjusting to speaking environments has dented her confidence. The location is quaint, and the money problems feel like more than just a plot device. When comparing her parents’ overly affectionate bond to that of her love interest’s (the rise of Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), she recognizes that personal problems are a collective burden. Her blossoming, with the aid of her teacher, makes for a very satisfying final conclusion- of course, that being a final conclusion I hadn’t realized I’d already seen in La Famille Belier, the French film from which this was adapted- but nonetheless, it hits all the marks desired.

What else to say? There are multiple coo-inducing song moments, there is a physical friend-brother romance subplot that’s pretty entertaining, and it’s very rewarding to see Marlee Matlin have a comeback in the role of Ruby’s mother. I’m glad that deaf stories are being told without deafness being the central issue from which to recover- most everything in this is very family-friendly, and I don’t doubt that Apple (a $25 million deal, which is record-breaking for Sundance) will make good use of its acquisition by advertising it as such.

If you like feel-goods, music movies, or are just a regular human person with a heart, CODA will bring you just the right amount of joy and poignancy to make you think, “man, that was cute.” Stay tuned to find out when Apple drops it on its streaming platform.




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