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Sundance Review: ‘CODA’ Finds Grace Notes in a Familiar Coming-of-Age Tune

A still from CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

On first glance, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is your average teenager. Insecure about herself and her future, she experiences the typical anxieties that come with the final year of high school. But there’s one thing she knows for sure – she loves to sing. Embracing her passion by joining the school choir, she soon embarks on a journey of self-discovery and finds renewed appreciation for herself, her family and the cute boy she thought didn’t like her.

The basic premise of Sian Heder’s CODA undoubtedly reads like your average high school dramedy. But there’s another element to Ruby’s life experiences that adds a new point of view. As the only hearing person in an otherwise deaf family, she is caught between two worlds. Often relied on to help facilitate transactions for the family’s humble fishing business, she is constantly reminded that she is the odd one out at home. Likewise, she is often singled out at school as “the girl with the deaf family.” When an opportunity arises for her to expand her horizons at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, however, Rossi begins to feel weighed down by her love and duty towards her loyal family.

While deaf characters are integral to the story, CODA builds the narrative outward from Rossi’s experience as an awkward high schooler. It’s a choice that sometimes feels like a compromise for the benefit of hearing audiences, especially when her school life unfolds predictably by the numbers. Indeed, CODA largely sticks to the tried and true tropes of friendship betrayals, tentative courtship and other slightly humiliating encounters common to romantic high school comedies. It’s not until Ruby finally musters the courage to fully pursue her music – after much encouragement from her spirited choir teacher (vivaciously portrayed by Eugenio Derbez) – that the film hones in on the specificity of Ruby’s background. In doing so, Heder’s sincere screenplay is able to reinterpret clichés like a “how does music make you feel?” exchange into a heartfelt expression of sign language.

Where the film truly resonates, however, is its exploration of how Ruby’s musical interests impact her family. For her parents and brother, her newfound talent inflicts a serious case of FOMO, a valid concern palpably illustrated in one heartbreaking pivotal scene. And in her brother’s case specifically, it further exacerbates an unspoken sibling rivalry.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

As we learn more about Ruby’s family members individually and as a loving unit, CODA is beautifully empathetic towards the challenges they face and perhaps more importantly, the relative normalcy of their lives. Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durrant are captivating as relatably fun-loving but overprotective parents, prone to embarrassing their daughter with their passionate love for each other.

Ultimately, CODA is a welcome step in the right direction towards the inclusion of cinematic narratives surrounding disabled individuals. Its authentic portrayal rejects the notion that deafness is something to be pitied or ashamed of, echoing the sentiments shared by awards season breakout Sound of Metal. CODA moves to the familiar rhythms of typical coming of age narratives, but it finds precious grace notes in the perspective of the deaf experience.

SCORE: ★★★

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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