Kicking off the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival is the heartwarming and hugely enjoyable crowd pleaser CODA, a heartfelt drama based off the 2014 French film La Famille Belier. Whilst feeling like one of the most mainstream festival openers yet with familiar story beats typical of a coming-of-age film, the movie also gives the audiences a thoughtful and authentic insight into the difficulties hearing impaired communities experience on a daily basis.
Directed by Siân Heder, CODA centers on 17 year old Ruby (Emilia Jones) as she tries to juggle school with attempting to help keep the family-run Gloucester fishing business afloat. Being the only hearing member of her family, she wakes up at 3am every morning to join her father (Troy Kutser) and brother (Daniel Durant.) on their morning fishing venture, dedicated to interpreting for them. However when she joins the school choir, her tough music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her to pursue her talent and apply for Berklee College of Music, leaving her torn between her family and her future.
Following last year’s fantastic Sound of Metal, CODA is an equally unique film shining a light on the underrepresented deaf community in a hugely emotional way, but with a good amount of genuine laughs thrown into the mix too. Heder uses certain tropes and well worn formulas from family (and musical) dramas and high school coming-of-age movies to tell a uniquely fresh and important story, which makes it more accessible for a mainstream audience. Think certain elements from The Edge of Seventeen mixed with Sing Street and you’ll be on the right track.
And yet while the film does play into certain genre expectations and formulaic conventions, it never feels [generic] thanks to Heder’s wonderfully written characters, brilliantly brought to life by a stellar cast. Led by the outstanding Emilia Jones, the actors excellently convey a close knit family with wonderful and jovial dynamics. The parents are crazy about eachother, the siblings lovingly insult one another and the family bond over dinner helping Leo to pick matches on Tinder – there’s a real vibrant warmth and joy between the family. It’s also fantastic to see authentic representation on the big screen through this core cast.
However due to their unique situation, there is a level of dependency on Ruby, particularly when it comes to Jackie who appears afraid of connecting with the larger community through the new fishing cooperative they’ve established. As Ruby spends more and more time practicing for the big concert and debating her future away from fishing with tough love Mr. V (a brilliant Eugenio Derbez) and crush Miles (Sing Streets underused Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the gap between the family widens. This is the first time Ruby has pursued something for herself, free of her long-held responsibilities for a brief period while delving into music, something which the family the family can’t appreciate, “If I was blind, would you want to paint?”
Be prepared, this conflict leads to many intense and emotional scenes, especially in Ruby’s audition sequence. If you thought the use of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in Love Actually broke your heart, wait till you experience this – the hugely emotional performance will undoubtedly lead to a lot of joyful tears, rivalling Jessie Buckley’s “Glasgow” performance in Wild Rose. Emilia Jones is a revelation, her musical performances are real highlights in the film and she has a wonderfully rich voice. Like Sound of Music, there’s a unique and clever use of sound to immerse you in the shoes of the family. The music entirely cuts out in one performance, utterly immersing you in a first person view of what it’s like to be deaf at a concert. It’s also fantastic to see multiple scenes solely communicated in ASL, along with an extended sequence with Leo at a bar flirting with Ruby’s best friend via text as they overcome the communication barrier.
With a witty yet heartfelt script brilliantly brought to life by a fantastic cast, CODA is a real triumphant, bursting with emotion and charm. Emilia Jones is certainly one to watch with her compelling performance, elevating this warm coming-of-age tale. What an opener for this year’s Sundance film festival!