Day 1 of the mostly virtual Sundance Film Festival kicked off with Sian Heder’s family drama CODA, a delightful film that offers a new spin on the standard coming-of-age tale.
Heder’s story focuses on Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a teenager who happens to be a CODA – child of deaf adults. She’s long served as an interpreter for her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and big brother Leo (Daniel Durant). By both necessity and preference, the Rossi family has existed outside of the hearing community, relying on Ruby to help be the bridge between the two worlds, especially when it comes to the family’s fishing business.
Teenage Ruby nobly does her duty to the family by waking up at 3 a.m. to head out on the water with Frank and Leo then bargains for a good price for the day’s catch, all before going to school. The family’s livelihood depends on Ruby, a fact that becomes all the more clear as she discovers her gift of music and is torn between supporting her family and following her dreams.
Hitting the familiar notes of a teenage outcast yearning to break free and discover who she is, Heder’s story delivers a refreshingly unique and, at times, tear-jerking look at coming-of-age. Under Heder’s direction and with the superb cast, this story feels brand new, even if viewers know exactly where it’s heading.
Jones (who, along with Heder, learned ASL for the film) is a revelation in a star-making turn as the musically-gifted Ruby while Matlin delivers one of her best performances in years in a role that’s both moving and funny. Together, this cast makes magic on screen, especially when the entire Rossi clan is involved.
The most heated family arguments play out silently but the emotional impact is a testament to the cast, most notably Kotsur and Durant. Audiences used to seeing screaming matches across the dinner table are treated to head-to-toe physical performances by these actors who feel every bit of emotion the story needs resulting in some powerful on-screen moments.
Naturally, the focus of CODA is on the strong family bonds so it takes a while for peripheral characters including Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s music teacher Mr. V and Ruby’s choir duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) to become fully-formed characters in their own right. But when they do, CODA really gets going, hitting its stride midway through the movie.
CODA would surely be a crowd-pleasing film, if there was a crowd to watch it. One can only imagine a teary-eyed audience rising to give Heder and her cast the applause they deserve.