Sundance 2021: 'CODA'

Feb 3, 2021

Credit Sundance Film Festival

The film CODA, written and directed by Sian Heder, who previously appeared at Sundance with the film Tallulah walked away as the big winner of Sundance 2021. Here’s Mark Harrington with his take...

CODA stands for “child of deaf adults,” and in the case of the film’s plot, represents a fairly formulaic coming of age story about Ruby, a teenage girl who struggles to balance her family obligations with her desires to find her own identity and path in life. Ruby works the family fishing boat in blue collar Gloucester MA. Her family’s schedule soon clashes with the demands of a potential shot at a music scholarship. The fact that the rest of her family is deaf isn’t the story; it just provides a variant on the challenges and conflicts she has to overcome. Heder consciously over-emphasizes this by telling nearly the entire story from the perspective of those who can hear.  Signing and the family’s adaptive communication are often the source of the film’s comedy, displayed with wonderful, unparalleled authenticity.  But, simply,  Ruby’s family is awesome.  This serves as a bit of trap, until Heder pulls the curtain back with several heart-stealing scenes towards the end of the film - and I did not mean heart-breaking - Heder has no intentions of victimizing any of the family members, but instead poignantly demonstrates their reality and adaptation to love and change as a family.  The cast delivers stellar performances across the board, led by Emilia Jones as Ruby, Marlee Matlin as her mom, Troy Kotsur as her father, and Daniel Durant as her brother.    

So, on my ski trail rating system, CODA earns my highest Black Diamond ski trail rating.  Although the film is an adaptation of an award-winning French film, Director Sian Heder makes this story her own by employing razor sharp dialogue, beautifully packaged with outstanding performances and cinematography which captures both an important sense of place and the intensity of alternative forms of communication.  The result is something much more than a formulaic coming of age story. It  is absolutely worthy of using your “favorite” button and burning a pass holder “early viewing.”  

CODA is not yet rated but contains lots of creative but dirty sign language, brief sexuality, and any teenager’s nightmare - repeated TMI and PDA by parents in love.  

This is Mark Harrington for KPCW’s Sundance Mini-Film Review.