Sundance 2021: CODA

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.

7 thoughts on “Sundance 2021: CODA

  1. Robert Jantzen

    Wow, it has been 34 years since Marlee Matlin broke into film with that ground breaking film Children of a Lesser God (were you born yet, Jay?). Looking at her filmography, she has kept busy over the years but mostly TV, not many A list movie roles for nonhearing actors. This sounds like a wonderful film. Here’s hoping we mere mortals don’t have to wait forever it to get to our minimal list of streaming services.

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  2. leendadll

    I always enjoy checking out films with a lot of sign. Just 2 classes short of becoming an interpreter, my brain jumbled ASL and SEE, then dumped them both. I can fingerspell and recall a smattering of words but I can no longer read it.

    Thanks for the info about the film fest. I might sign up for that!!

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  3. Liz A.

    It’s not unusual to have a kiddo translating for the adults, but usually the language is different. Makes for an interesting shift.

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