Sundance 2021 Review: CODA

Director: Siân Heder
Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, and Ferdia Walsh-Peelo
Cinematographer: Paula Huidobro

The 2021 Sundance film festival has officially kicked off in a new format. The virtual event began Thursday, January 28th with Siân Heder’s heartwarming tearjerker CODA. The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, a 17-year-old high schooler trying to navigate her way through school as she struggles to find her passions. Ruby also happens to be the only hearing member of a deaf family, who she helps every morning to keep their fishing business afloat. As time goes on, Ruby finds a love for singing, a new crush in a classmate and a clear vision for her future. But just as these passions grow so does her desire to experience a life beyond fishing, leaving her torn between staying to help her family or pursuing her dream.

Siân Heder’s feature is nothing short of spectacular. The way in which she navigates this story of growth, family loyalty and love was a great way to begin the festival. Heder makes it known that to be deaf doesn’t mean that you cannot do as those with perfect hearing. In fact, through CODA, she gives us a glimpse into that perspective by showcasing a deaf family just as a family without the disability. They love hard, they fight often, but when push comes to shove, they are there for one another.

That’s not to say that everything in the film is rainbows and butterflies. Indeed, there are times when the characters give in to their own perspectives, neglecting to realize the importance of communication (no matter the format). But incorporating moments like this into the feature is what makes the film great for me. They give us an idea of the beautiful connections being in a family like this has, while simultaneously showcasing the burdens of trying to do everything with no help.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

One of the best parts of CODA is certainly how Ruby navigates her life through her relationships. She originally joins the school choir in hopes of connecting with her school crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). But through her action of trying to connect with someone, she finds her joy and passion for music, which sets the stage for the ultimate conflict with her family. It gets messy and complicated, but the film does a beautiful job capturing the relief of finally being able to make a decision for yourself, knowing who you are, and pursuing your ultimate dream.

With this story and its important message(s) came exceptional performances from the cast. Emilia Jones is a star. She showed great strength in conveying loyalty and blossomed into a confident singer by the film’s end. The supporting cast members like her parents (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) also stood out to me. Durant, in particular, really succeeded in offering the alternative perspective in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of not feeling like you’re enough for your family yet sticking by them through hardships.

Heder’s CODA will certainly be a crowd-pleaser for most as if offers a perspective that many films won’t dare showcase. And though the film’s conflict is nicely wrapped up by the film’s end with great predictability and little realistic effort, it doesn’t take away from the heartwarming content, often times humorous tone and feel-good nature.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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