Ticking all of the small-town America coming-of-age drama bingo boxes, there’s a significant twist to the full house of Siân Heder’s CODA. Ruby Rossi, played by British actress Emilia Jones in a standout performance, doesn’t quite yet know who she is or what she wants from life.
She wears baggy check shirts and a Boston Bruins hoodie; she loves Etta James but also listens to The Shaggs on her dodgy old LP player; though we’ve heard her and she’s brilliant, she doubts her singing abilities, but joins the school choir because she has eyes for Miles (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). So far so familiar, right? Where Heder’s latest departs from the norm is that Ruby, per the titular acronym, is a child of deaf adults. Up before the crack of dawn every day, she goes out with her father, Frank (Troy Kotsur), and brother, Leo (Daniel Durant) – who is also deaf, to fish off the Massachusetts coast.
Filmed in Gloucester, this part of the world traditionally either suffers from the bitter cold or terrifying nor’easters, whipping up great storms that sink ships. But although for the most part the sun shines and the sea is calm, it is far from plain sailing for the Rossi family. Strict quotas threaten their livelihood, and the men’s inability to communicate without Ruby’s interpreting assistance further hinders their chances. She argues their case to a greedy foreman to pay them their dues, but how would they cope if Ruby was no longer around?
The rather formulaic “Should I stay or should I go” push-and-pull forms the crux of the narrative hereafter. Ruby’s passionate, supportive music teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) encourages her to apply for a place at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Torn between her own dreams and obligation to a family who have for so long relied upon her, there are predictable ups and downs before the rousing finale. Are there moments that dive headlong into the saccharine? Absolutely. But Heder’s direction throws up a couple of surprises in the latter stages that will stop even the most cynical of viewers in their tracks.
Drawn from Éric Lartigau’s 2014 film La Famille Bélier, Heder’s script is also consistently very funny. A number of Ruby’s purposeful mis-translations bring guffaws, Frank’s rather base humour is told with a gleeful twinkle in his eye, and his love for wife Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and their – how to put it – very hands-on relationship, even after many years of marriage, is wonderful. Chief in CODA’s achievements are the dynamics of the very close unit at its core. Coming away from the film, there is the sense that this could very well be a real family.
In their performances, the writing, the ease at which these actors exchange and bicker and tease one another, the film is full of love and sincerity. Amid all the wise cracks and humour, there also remains the serious undercurrent of how people with disabilities are treated, and indeed how they should be treated. For its respectful championing of these issues, and especially in its casting of three deaf actors, CODA should be applauded as heartily as we do for Ruby in Heder’s feel-good Sundance opening night film.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.
Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63