The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.
The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.
Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.
Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.
Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.
Score – 4.5/5
More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup