CODA [Sundance Film Festival Review]

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Watching CODA is like having someone wrap you up in a great big bear hug. Siân Heder’s movie, which was the opening night selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is warm, funny, and heartfelt. To call it a feel-good story would be an understatement, because it sends you away feeling so much more than good. So many ideas – including the importance of family and the need to pursue your dreams – are examined with such truth and honesty that it's virtually impossible not to feel uplifted.

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, in a star-making performance) is the only one in her family who isn't deaf. Her parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) run a fishing business in the town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, along with her brother (Daniel Durant). Ruby helps out on the boat and assists in any related tasks that require someone who can hear. When the clan makes a move to start their own co-op with other fishermen, she's placed in a tough situation. Her folks need her to be part of that, but her school choir director, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), believes her singing ability is strong enough to get her into Berklee College of Music.

Ruby has to decide whether to give up her dream of higher education or potentially leave her family in the lurch. Complicating matters is her crush on Miles (Sing Street's Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), another star singer with whom Mr. Villalobos has assigned her to perform a duet in the upcoming recital.

Stories about a character who's stuck between an aspiration and a harsh reality are, of course, nothing new. What separates CODA from the pack is its look at what it's like living as a Child of Deaf Adults (the acronym of which gives the movie its title). Mr. and Mrs. Rossi don't believe Ruby's dream is practical because they can't hear her sing, and therefore have no idea how skilled she really is. The way the film pays that off at the end is guaranteed to put a lump in your throat.

Heder additionally takes pains to show the predicament Ruby finds herself in. Without someone to hear, running a fishing business is virtually impossible. Since she's long been responsible for assuming certain duties, walking away from them – knowing it could spell financial doom for her family – isn't easy. We can sense the pressure that she's under. Also compelling is the way Ruby and her parents fight in sign language. Moments like these emphasize the disconnect between them. They may be related, yet there's a fundamental difference in how they perceive the world.

Emilia Jones is nothing short of remarkable. For starters, she sings beautifully. That makes the concept of Ruby being qualified to attend music college authentic. Even more impressively, the actress had to learn ASL for the role. She looks as though she's been doing it all her life. Jones never hits a wrong beat. Every emotion Ruby experiences has a ring of truth. Her ability to make us care deeply about the character glues everything else together.

CODA has some huge laughs, courtesy of Kotsur and Matlin. The actors, both of whom are deaf in real life, do outstanding work. The Rossis enjoy embarrassing their daughter, especially around Miles. They also have fun signing inappropriate things to other people. The humor springs naturally from the characters and situations, never seeming forced. Derbez provides more levity as the super-intense teacher who will stop at nothing to whip his students into shape.

Where CODA ends up isn't necessarily a surprise. That said, the way it gets to that ending is incredibly meaningful. Heder crafts a beautiful climactic scene that ties together all the plot threads a satisfying manner. It's perfect, as is everyone in the cast. The movie's an all-around winner.

out of four

CODA is unrated, but contains adult language, drug content, and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.