Director(s): Sian Heder
Writer(s): Sian Heder
Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant
Synopsis: This is about a hearing child in a deaf family who finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her family’s reliance on her to be their connection to the outside world.
Sometimes a movie can be so sweet, so charming, and so heartfelt that even the moments that feel like flaws can be easily overlooked. CODA is that film, as from start to finish I was completely enamored by the beauty and grace of the world we were put in. This culminated in a feel-good story that felt as good as can be. It delivers emotional gut-punch one after another but does so almost flawlessly in a way that feels different and new altogether. From the beautiful score and cinematography to the wonderful direction, and powerful performance, CODA is a film that hit every beat for me.
Really touching on the performances, I can say casting deaf actors for the roles of Ruby’s deaf family members was a truly great choice. The reactions and situations that they were put through were elevated in terms of the performance because, in some of the more emotional scenes, they were not acting in the situation, but truly reacting. One scene in particular during Ruby’s concert shattered me as we were brought into the world of her family. Where Ruby had always felt out of place in her family’s world, her family felt out of place in her world. It was a hard and touching moment, and Sian Heder beautifully captures the difficulties that the entire family had to face. Following this is a moment between Ruby and her father in the back of a truck that I don’t think anyone will be able to not shed a tear through. The moment between them is exactly why it is so great that these roles went to deaf actors because the moment was so honest and real and brought an authentic look at what this situation would really be like. A scene later on in the film that brought Ruby and her entire family together into what she loved was absolutely heart-melting. I will never look at Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides, Now” the same way again.
The standout of this film is Emilia Jones as Ruby. As the link between her family and the hearing world, she was forced to grow up much faster than most kids of her age. She was forced into this role of an adult and was never given the chance to be a kid. Her family relied on her to always be there for them, and when she wasn’t they felt like it was her fault. Ruby was just a kid, but she never had anywhere she could fit in. At school, she was made fun of for having deaf parents, and at home, she felt like an outsider for being the only non-deaf person in the family. These are not situations that I have had to go through, but her feeling of isolation and loneliness around the people who love her most was something that I could relate to her with. Jones was able to portray this with the perfect sense of wanting to be accepted that was easy to relate to. Her constant fear of being tied between wanting to be a kid and live her life, but not wanting to let her family down was a daunting task that weighed so heavy on her. Jones pulls this off with so much grace and power giving us humor and emotion that works so well, and she sings! And really well I might add, most of the time you can really tell which an actor is better at, singing or acting, but with Jones, I think she has a bright career in both. This is a star-making performance for her and I can’t wait to see what else she brings.
The story itself did fall flat in some places, and the structure was very straightforward. I applaud Heder for wanting to fit in as much as she could, but at times it felt like there was too much to keep up with. Certain plot points didn’t stick out as much as the rest, and others didn’t feel like they had enough time to breathe. At times, it felt constricted in itself in wanting to show every little thing it could. It also didn’t veer much from the coming-of-age formula, even though I do think it attacked that formula head-on in such a powerful way.
I can nitpick this film to pieces, because I think when you like something as much as I liked this you should try to nitpick some, but the charm and charisma of this film really stand above any mark I could give it. It is a testament to the film as a whole, because it was just a few moments, scenes, or sequences away from being a real cringefest of a movie, but as I said earlier, the heart and charm of this film made it so easy to look past most of these moments.
What this movie really was, was a peek into the lives of children of deaf adults, and the difficulties they have to go through. I think Heder did a good job at capturing the difficult moments, as well as heartfelt ones in a way that felt palpable for the audience. She never tried to overplay certain situations, and let the actors and the moments play out as honestly as they could. Yes, this caused some of the quiet sign conversations between Ruby and her family to strike harder, but it also caused these moments to matter so much more. These moments were the ones that stuck out to me the most and were the ones that really caused me to sit and think. This gorgeous film brought a new twist and breath of fresh air to the coming-of-age- genre. I absolutely loved it.
Final: CODA is a film that I believe won’t find many haters, and will surely be one of the crowd-pleasing/heartwarming films of the year. The entire cast of deaf and hearing actors blew me away, but Emilia Jones stood out in a star-making performance. A beautiful movie that allows the audience to peek into the life of a CODA. A perfect way to begin Sundance.
My Score: A
2021 Sundance Coverage
2021 Film Rankings
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.