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Sundance 2021 Review: 'CODA' aims right for the heartstrings

Siân Heder's touching coming-of-age drama truly centers family and aims right for the heartstrings

Emilia Jones on a fishing boat
(Image: © Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Our Verdict

In a time when finding ways to connect and understand one another is even more vitally important, the message at the heart of Heder's feature film’s sure to hit an pleasing chord.

For

  • 🎶Stellar ensemble cast.
  • 🎶Engrossing performances.
  • 🎶Relatable narrative.
  • 🎶Emotional sincerity.

Against

  • 🎶Missed opportunities for character development.
  • 🎶Shallow world-building.
  • 🎶A few clichéd and underdeveloped plot points.

CODA is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

Fifteen minutes in, and it’s clear why CODA, writer/director Siân Heder’s stylish remake of the French film La Famille Bélier, kicked off the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 28, 2021. The film explores weighty themes like fear of failure, co-dependence, and ambition with laughter and honesty. It's an engaging balance act as a close knit family learns to let go and make room for each other's dreams. 

CODA follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a high school senior living with her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) in a fishing community in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The film’s title, CODA, stands for child of deaf adults. It refers to a child who lives with deaf adults and typically learns ASL as their first language. As the only hearing member of her family, Ruby's grown up dutifully interpreting and speaking as the family’s go-between. She's been brought up to act for the family first. 

This isn't an uncommon character motivation, but Jones portrays Ruby with a lightness of spirit that keeps the character from ever coming across as too-bitter-to-believe. There's a steadiness to Ruby that shows her willingness to sacrifice for her family comes from a place of love rather than across reading as masochistic. A person’s more likely to encounter Ruby singing than brooding. As we learn what a day-in-the-life is like for the Rossi's, it’s quickly clear that Heder intends for viewers to reverse rolls, so to speak, and consider what impact living in a world not designed for to consider them may have on someone’s sense of belonging.  

If I were blind, would you want to paint?...

It's Ruby's last year in school. She's determined to sing (something her other disparages because it leaves the family out) because singing is what she loves above all else. CODA set up the dilemma in stages creating first a clear picture of a day in the life of this family of fishermen. Ruby's days begin before dawn and trying to make it through the school day without being mocked or heckled is emotionally hectic. 

From the outset, what sets CODA apart from other family dramedies is, this was never intended to be Ruby Rossi’s solo journey. Heder spends the necessary time build out the world around the Rossi family crafting a coming-of-age tale focused on an entire family forced to grow up and find their way forward; as individuals and as a unit. No Rossi is ever reduced to being just a springboard for Ruby’s growth and it's in these ensemble moments that film's hits its stride.  

All throughout the story it's clear that the Rossi home pays little heed to the needs of the hearing. It opens the door for some pointed (and ironic) commentary on how dismissive people are of things with little impact on them directly. It also lays the groundwork for a uniquely presented (if underdeveloped) subplot unraveling Jackie's fear of being a bad mother and the reasons behind it. 

It's abundantly clearly that Frank and Jackie steadfastly evaluate their child's needs as it reflects on themselves. It's in this part of the story where CODA really hits it stride.  Mother/daughter conflict, sibling rivalry, and having each other's back when it counts. All points of connection to the characters, and teachable moments that add authenticity to this story.  

With three talented deaf actors giving nuanced and emotive performances, CODA centers a deaf household without caricature or treating deafness as an insurmountable obstacle to "normalcy." But juxtaposing Ruby’s desire to follow her dream against her family’s need to stick together, elevates this family's journey to accepting when duty to family must end into a poignant commentary on the dangers of building your comfort zones around other people.

CODA questions what loyalty looks like and answers with a refreshingly contemporary celebration of family rife with reminders that sometimes the riskiest thing you can do is bet on yourself.