CODA (Sundance2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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The acronym CODA refers to ‘children of deaf parents’, and that’s what writer/director Sian Heder called her film, which is a remake of the French film La Famille Bélier. As crowd-pleasing as CODA is, this is a movie that will make an impact with audiences worldwide, just as it did as the opening film at Sundance 2021. A coming of age drama that will draw tears and cheers from its audience, CODA was met with near universal acclaim at the fest, winning the US Grand Jury Prize, the Directing Award, and the Audience Award in US Dramatic, as well as the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for the ensemble cast. It also shattered the record for the highest price paid upon acquisition, selling to Apple TV+ for $25 million dollars, advancing considerably from last year’s record price of $17.5 million for high-concept romantic comedy Palm Springs. It seems feel-good films are perennially the belle of the ball.

CODA is about Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a 17 year old hearing girl who helps her deaf family, including parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) with their fishing business in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She often belts tunes while working on the water, and her love of singing leads her to join the high school choir. Her passion further ignites when Ruby is assigned a duet with potential beau Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peele). Choir master Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) sees her talent, and suggests she audition for music school, which sets up a conflict with the family that needs her to help keep their business afloat.

The story would be pretty pedestrian if not for the fact that it centers entirely on a deaf family, often speaking in ASL, performed by deaf actors, with dialogue shown in subtitles to those who don’t know the language. It is Heder’s dialogue, and the delivery by the actors, that raises CODA high above standard coming of age fare. This is not a film that makes the story about deafness itself. Frank, Jackie, and Leo just are. They are funny, passionate, committed people, and they love each other with an enviable fierceness and loyalty. Frank and Jackie are still in love after decades of marriage, as the fact that they can’t keep their hands off each other attests. It’s not like there aren’t idiosyncratic, unique elements to the Rossi clan specific to deafness, but the way they navigate their experiences will be something anyone who comes from a quirky, loving family will recognize. How Jones, Kotsur, Matlin, and Durant interact, how they do and do not pay attention to each other, how they feel separate from and because of each other, these are what make up the heartbeat of the film.

For years we’ve all seen actors take on roles of deaf, blind, or otherwise differently-abled people, and win awards in the process. It always rang hollow to me. There’s no amount of acting that can express the experience of someone who has lived their whole life speaking other languages and using other senses in the way blind and deaf people can and do. The French version of this film hired two hearing actors to play the parents in the story, resulting in much anger by the deaf community in France. Casting deaf actors in films and television with deaf characters is way overdue, and CODA certainly proves, if anyone needed proof, that there is ample talent out there with which to fill these roles. Heartwarming and life-affirming, while making space for more authentic stories in the future of both indie and studio productions, CODA is likely to number among the most joyful films of 2021, and it’s an added bonus that it means a film by a female writer/director has broken the record for the highest amount paid for a film at Sundance.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.