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Sundance Film Festival Review: ‘CODA’ is a Winner

Emilia Jones appears in CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

More often than not, the most feted titles at the Sundance Film Festival are widely overpraised. That’s not to say that they’re bad movies, but tend to be unable to live up to the hype. Then, there’s CODA here in 2021. CODA more than lives up to the hype. Somehow, it exceeds it. A musically-tinged family comedy, with a little romance even thrown in for good measure, has everything that makes cinema worthwhile. This is the sort of independent feature that you just know is going to break through to the masses (Apple agreed, paying a huge amount to acquire the flick). More than just a wonderful indie, it’s a potential awards player down the line.

CODA is phenomenal. Writer/director Sian Heder is able to mix comedy and drama with aplomb, never once tripping over the cliches of the genre. It’s supremely confident work, from start to finish. Even when the narrative goes to some familiar places, the jokes and the situations are unique. Of course, casting deaf actors and actresses lends an extra bit of honesty and realism to things, though it also makes for some even funnier moments than expected. Who knew that ASL could be used to such comedic benefits?

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a close-knit deaf family. Her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), father Frank (Troy Kotsur), and mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) operate a struggling Gloucester fishing business, with Ruby providing their ears. Seventeen years old, she spends her mornings out on the water with them, before school. However, her dream is to sing, something she’s wonderfully talented at, though her shyness prevents anyone from knowing. At least, that’s the case until she joins the school choir and her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) begins cultivating her talent.

Sensing that Ruby can get a college scholarship, Bernardo pairs her with Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) for a showcase. He pushes her, bringing out some extra confidence in the process. At the same time, her family is attempting to keep their business afloat, needed her more and more. Of course, she can’t do both, and conflict eventually arises. The resolution may not ever really be in doubt, but the deftness with which we get there is a joy to behold.

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.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Emilia Jones is a revelation, while Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin are hilarious. A running gag that the couple can’t keep their hands off of each other leads to several humorous moments. However, they also hit dramatic high notes. Jones, Kotsur, and Matlin, along with Daniel Durant, make the Rossi’s the cinematic family of 2021 so far. Eugenio Derbez is terrific as well, while supporting players like Amy Forsyth have their moments, too. Matlin is a treasure, of course, but Jones is best in show. Not only is she a talented actress, her voice is a wonder to behold. Her climactic song, and especially how she delivers it, may well bring a tear to your eye.

Filmmaker Sian Heder never hits a false note here. CODA is as funny as it is touching, effortlessly navigating the different tones. Utilizing some familiar family dynamics, as well as ASL, we get a cinematic family that’s unforgettable, whether it’s trafficking in comedy or drama. Heder has crafted the very definition of a crowd-pleaser here, and deserves all of the acclaim she’s been receiving.

CODA is an absolute gem and rightly one of the most widely beloved titles of Sundance 2021. From start to finish, it makes you laugh, it makes you smile, and it hits you right in the heart. While we weren’t in Park City this year, you still could easily sense the buzz and love in the air for this flick. Plain and simple, this is already one of the best films of the year. It’s just that good. Apple will be bringing the movie to you at some point, and it’ll be more than worth the wait.

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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