Greetings from the Sundance Film Festival! Okay, to be honest, I’m not in Utah; Sundance has come to me – and possibly to you, if you go online and buy a ticket (good news! you’re already online! halfway there!).
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a CODA – a child of deaf adults. Her older brother Leo’s deaf too. She’s the only hearing member of her family. She’s still in high school but she gets up every day at 3am to hit the fishing boat with Leo (Daniel Durant) and their dad Frank (Troy Kotsur). Times are tough. Fish merchants are putting the squeeze on those in the boats, and while Ruby’s extra pair of hands on the boat are necessary, it’s her ears that are most pivotal. She is their link to the hearing world, to the people who set prices and regulate their industry and affect their future.
As a senior in high school, it is natural that Ruby would be wanting to peel away from her family. Literally finding her voice and pursuing her passion for singing is the only thing she does just for herself, but it takes time away from a family who are quite reliant on her. Ruby is the constant conduit between her family and the world. She never had the childhood that others do. While Ruby sometimes feels othered in her family, being the only hearing member, she is indeed a member of the deaf community in her own way. American Sign Language (ASL) was her first language, and is still her default.
Director Siân Heder treats ASL almost as if it is a character in the film. She captures the movement and the expression, giving us a de facto crash course in the language as Ruby translates helpfully from the side. Frank is particularly, erm, unfiltered, prone to salty assertions and crude but colourful insults which embarrass his daughter even when she chooses not to translate them.
Emilia Jones stretches wide to play this supremely mature teenage girl who longs for freedom while fearing for her family. She is a joy to watch and it’s easy to get lost in her story as she feels authentic on fishing boats and on stages alike. But what makes a movie like this, which is surprisingly conventional in its beats, is the fullness of character achieved by the entire family. Kotsur, as salty dog Frank, rough and tumble, coarse in a self-satisfied way, shows us a man struggling to provide for his family and support his growing daughter. Durant as Leo is a heartthrob big brother with his own ambitions who chafes at having his independence undermined by the help of his little sister. And last but not least is Marlee Matlin as mom Jackie, feisty former beauty queen and fierce mama bear. Theirs is a close knit family that is going through some growing pains as all families do. They may have their unique challenges, but at the end of the day, the Rossis aren’t so different. Heder’s tendency to lean into the tropes of the genre only highlights the fact that this family experiences all the same ups and downs as any other. But Heder’s tenderness and authenticity mark this film as one to watch, and with such strong and vibrant performances, it’s also one you won’t forget.