‘CODA’ Sundance Film Fest Review: A Perfectly Poignant, Feel-Good Film

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

CODA

Not Yet Rated, 111 minutes

Directed by: Sian Heder

Starring: Emilia Jones, Marlee MatlinTroy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Amy Forsyth, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo

It’s hard growing up with the average challenges of navigating puberty and the social mores of high school. It’s made all the more difficult if your family relies on you as a lifeline to a foreign outside world not particularly conducive to special needs. Such is the story of the protagonist in filmmaker Siân Heder’s CODA. Based on Éric Lartigau’s film LA FAMILLE BÉLIER, Heder’s perfectly poignant coming-of-age dramedy centers on a hearing teen overwhelmed by her deaf family’s needs and obligations, grounding itself in tender, heartfelt sentimentality. Though the path it takes is well-marked, the rich interior lives and nuanced facets of these characters make traveling with them absolutely compelling. It’s a feel-good film that delivers the right notes.

The title refers to a concluding passage of a movement. However, this is far from a conclusion, but the beginning of one young woman’s passage in life. Senior high-schooler Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) rarely has any alone time. As the sole hearing member in her deaf family, a lot falls on her shoulders. Attending school right after finishing up her morning duties aboard her family’s fishing boat, her mousy clothes reeking of dead fish, has made her an object of scorn and bullying from her classmates. Her lone reprieve is music. She loves it. She loves listening to it on her thrift shop Fisher-Price record player, listening to it on her iPod and singing along to it on the radio on the boat. So when she signs up for her acapella school choir, despite some ribbing from her acerbic bestie Gertie (Amy Forsyth), it acts as a lifeline for Ruby. She’s a budding chanteuse in need of a trainer.

Enter fussy-but-funny music teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who, after Ruby’s initial trepidation singing in front of people, assigns Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” to her and cute classmate Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). Her pot-smoking father Frank (Troy Kotsur), former beauty queen mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and quick-tempered older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) aren’t exactly on board with her extracurricular activity. They’re worried it will pull her away from work and isolate them from her and their community. Their multi-generational fishing business in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts is in the dumps and their monetary struggles are worsening, leaving Ruby stressed trying to balance her needs with her folks’ unreasonable expectations of her.

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur in CODA. Courtesy of Pathe Films and Vendome Pictures.

The role music plays is like a character unto itself, interwoven into the fabric of the narrative and its character dynamics. The soundtrack’s lyrics (curated by pedigreed music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, executive music producer and composer Marius De Vries and music producer Nic Baxter) provide subtle musical callbacks to interpersonal conflicts and psychological stakes. They also give the picture a buoyant spirit. Some songs, like the aforementioned classic Motown duet and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now,” even transform in meaning and powerful resonance throughout the film.

The picture’s psychological and physical stakes are clearly defined and beautifully fleshed out. Ruby’s personal sacrifices, as well as her family’s intrinsic needs for survival, are understandable. Before we can wonder how the family used to function before the youngest member of the family arrived, the answer is delivered in the undercurrents of the narrative. It’s easy to see how these folks became dependent on Ruby acting as their translator, exhaustively defaulting to a direct, easy solution without thinking of the toll it took on their daughter. Once they come to this inevitable realization, the film grabs hold of the head and the heart. There are palpably moving scenes between father and daughter, mother and daughter, and brother and sister that earn their way into our hearts.

Heder also infuses scenes with a lot of humor, whether that be Gertie’s misunderstood signing to Leo, Frank’s penchant for loud gangster rap, or the family’s playful joking. She also doesn’t leave the audience on the outside periphery when it comes to understanding how the deaf extrapolate hearing-focused activities. Ruby’s big solo in the Fall Concert, one of the big Movie Moments, goes silent as to better contextualize how her family is forced to decipher if their daughter is good. They’re left searching the crowd for visceral responses.

Performances from the ensemble are all strong. Jones is a revelation, imbuing her character struggles with warmth, vulnerability and radiance. Her physicality transforms from lacking confidence to a controlled vocalist before our eyes. It’s fun to see Matlin lean into the comedic side of her matriarch with deft aplomb, as well as deliver the sensitive sides. Kotsur makes for a perfect scene partner with Matlin and Jones, delivering on hilarious and heartrending dialogue. Derbez gives us an inspirational teacher that transcends the archetypal “movie teacher.” Instead of tracing the lines of a drawing, he shades his character with light touches.

It’s hard not to feel touched seeing a young woman learning to use her voice for the good of everyone. CODA is a standout that would be a successful acquisition for any streaming service. For this film, that would be the perfect end note.

Grade: B+

CODA premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 28.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.