Directed by Sian Heder.
Starring Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, and Eugenio Derbez.
A hearing child in a deaf family finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her family’s reliance on her to be their connection to the outside world.
Sitting down for my first Sundance, I expected to see some powerful films. But I could’ve never expected the first feature I watched to wreck me so quickly. CODA, the latest film from writer/director Sian Heder, knows exactly when to pull the heartstrings, it knows when to make you laugh, and it knows how to tell a compelling story.
Through this story that follows teenager Ruby navigating life as a hearing child in a deaf family, you learn a lot about the character and what it’s like living her life. As someone who’s never been a fan of “coming-of-age” stories, I was a bit nervous to follow a teen girl through life, love, and her future. Thankfully I gave this an open mind as I think this is the type of story I want to see more of from here on out. There’s so much to say in CODA, never wasting a moment to soak in melodrama or cliches; the film pushes forward and makes you feel every authentic moment.
At the center of the film is Emilia Jones, giving Ruby so much life and personality. She’s a complicated character, but not in the way you’d see from some cheesy Netflix-version of this type of film. No, Ruby is a character with layers and complex emotions beyond just being a teen girl. While she may love her family, she feels the burden of being their interpreter. She wants to help them in their new business but also wants to better her life. These are real and personal issues that hit close to home, and the film plays them out wonderfully..and there’s acted out perfectly by Jones.
The young Emilia Jones isn’t alone in the powerhouse acting department. Marlee Matlin offers a fantastic turn, but nothing is shocking there as she’s such a talented actress. After years in the industry, she remains an asset that I think is appreciated, but there’s never enough Matlin in my life. Her role here was one of her best, bringing what could’ve been a cliched “mom in a teen movie” role to a new height.
Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant play Ruby’s father and brother, respectively, and I can’t think of better performers to round out the family in CODA. They all feel like a real family, with the fights always coming from a place of love and the heartfelt moments coming frequently. Durant’s emotional moment towards the third act is what sold me on him, going from “cool older brother” character to an important piece of this movie’s puzzle.
There’s also no denying that Eugenio Derbez is having the time of his life as a choir teacher that brings the humor when the movie needs a moment of levity. Troy Kotsur’s father role of Frank also had me laughing, but nothing like Derbez and his wonderful turn. His moments with Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Emilia Jones early in the film really sold me, and he kept bringing everything you’d want until the very end.
The script is fairly simple, offering up exactly what you’d expect from a coming-of-age film like this. But I do find that CODA avoided a lot of cliches that I expected here. Sure, there’s the big dream school that Ruby wants to attend, and she has the obvious falling-out with her love interest, but those were the only times I felt like I had seen something like CODA before.
Besides those moments, I felt this had something new to say and something that needs to be heard. Through the humor and the adorable moments, there’s a message here of listening to yourself and what others are telling you. No matter if it’s through ASL or speaking, you must stop and take it all in before you go forth on a path you think is correct.
Director Sian Heder comes in with a film that works as an emotional powerhouse and a crowd-pleaser. Heder also did a wonderful job making a low-key musical here, with music playing a massive part of the film. The film’s final performance brought me to tears, which was probably my third time tearing up throughout the viewing. Any time you bring up Joni Mitchell and set it to some warm and loving scenes, you are guaranteed to make a fan out of me.
CODA is the type of film I see warming hearts worldwide and something that feels must-see. With three talented deaf actors, you will see that there’s room for everyone in the cinematic landscape, just as much as the film tries to tell you that there’s a place for everyone in the real world. Craft stories for those in the deaf community, hire more deaf actors for your films, and maybe you can come up with a film as compelling as this.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★