Coda kicks off this year’s Sundance Film Festival as one of its best openers in recent memory. An American remake of the 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier, Coda operates under the same premise, albeit with personal touches courtesy of writer and director Sian Heder.
Coda centers around a 17-year-old named Ruby (Emilia Jones in a bit of pitch-perfect casting), who is the child of deaf adults (CODA). Her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is also deaf, which means she’s the only person in her working-class family who can hear. Her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) runs a fishing boat along the coast of their New England town, and the whole family has to pitch in so they can make ends meet. And that certainly goes extra for Ruby, who in addition to helping reel in the fish has to act as a constant interpreter for her family, since she can translate and communicate in American Sign Language.
But Ruby’s true passion is singing, which the film establishes in its opening scene, showcasing how comfortable she is to belt out an Etta James tune while in open water with her deaf family by her side. But while in the company of other kids, she finds herself too nervous to express herself, hinting at some previous trauma she’s experienced due to how her family life has impacted her social one. This is shaken up by Ruby’s new choir teacher Bernardo, played by a scene-stealing Eugenio Derbez, who challenges her to rethink her priorities for what might come after high school.
Much of Coda is about as conventional as these sorts of independent dramas get, almost to the point where you could easily create a parody trailer highlighting all the scenes worthy of an insipid Oscar reel. Fortunately, the film transcends its potentially cringe formula by getting these characters just right, which is bolstered by some wonderful performances. The performances are so strong it’s tough to imagine them in the hands of other performers.
The relationships within the family are believable and not so clear-cut, particularly with Ruby’s mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin). It’s all too common for modern films to tiptoe around issues of disability by lionizing its characters and building conflicts out of shallow misunderstandings, rather than presenting authentic situations people can find relatable, no matter their familiarity with the Deaf community. As a mother, Jackie’s struggle to fully support her daughter comes from a genuine, if not misguided, place. It’s explored to a reasonable extent as the film moves along its brisk pace. Questions around Ruby’s role in the family aren’t always given enough time to dive deeper beneath the surface of these issues, but the film does just enough to make them sink in.
The musical flavor of Coda is what makes it truly memorable, blending John Carney’s winning energy with crass, blue-collar humor. In fact, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo from Carney’s Sing Street even gets a chance to bring out his guitar and make audiences fall back in love with his effortless tenor all over again. Even the idea of a deaf family struggling to connect with their daughter who loves to sing could have been so easily mishandled and misappropriated for the sake of manufactured drama, but Heder avoids these pitfalls by making this family feel alive and full of agency.
On a more personal note, Coda is likely to bring on the tears for some who do get a chance to watch it. For me, this happened twice, mainly because I happen to be deaf (though not culturally Deaf at this time). Without hearing aids, the world is almost completely silent to me, and as this has been a more recent reality I’ve had to adjust to over these last few years, I’ve found myself contemplating much of what Coda stirs up throughout its 111 minutes. How do you raise a child who can hear, even though you can’t? My hearing will continue to deteriorate, perhaps permanently. I’ve told myself it’s only human to fear this because I have to mentally prepare myself for what might happen. Coda raises a lot of interpersonal conflicts I haven’t even begun to anticipate, yet find all too relevant considering my own circumstances.
My hope is that Coda will connect a lot of able-bodied people to many in the Deaf community who might feel like the world rejects and pities them. Deaf people can tease their family members, make fart jokes, and have active, fulfilling lives. And yes, Coda renewed my excitement in eventually having a child or two of my own, someday. Because if I can possibly be loved the way these parents are loved by their child, it will be worth the uncertainty I have to endure until that day comes.
Coda had its world premiere on Jan. 28, 2021 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.