If the coronavirus pandemic forced the Sundance Film Festival to virtually reinvent itself this year, it couldn’t have got off to a more satisfying start than with CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), the warm story of the coming of age of a hearing child in a deaf family. With deaf actors including Children of a Lesser God Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, presented here refreshingly in an irresistible mixed set, and scenes unafraid to play in silence for a hearing audience, this film based on the award-winning French hit The belier family is a breath of fresh air that has seized the prestigious opening night niche of the US Dramatic Competition and is proving to be a real crowd pleaser with great potential to be a success for the distributor. It hits you right in the heart, not only as a touching story of what it means to be in a family, but also as a story of becoming your own person and following a dream.
‘CODA’ stars Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant speak about authentic portrayal of deaf culture and the need to represent it – Sundance Studio
At its center is a breakout performance of Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing child born into a deaf family that includes parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Matlin), as well as brother Leo. (Daniel Durant). Ruby is the hearing person integral to helping Frank’s fishing boat business stay afloat as he and Leo face trouble when authorities threaten their livelihoods. She’s always been there, but Ruby is also an aspiring singer in her high school musical choir which she joined in order to be closer to her crush Miles (Sing the street Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and wants to break off to follow her own path with entry to Berklee College of Music in Boston, an opportunity pushed by her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). This is complicated by the responsibility she feels for her family and her own role as a connection to the outside world.
With the family discouraging their musical ambition due to their own circumstances (hiring someone to be their intermediary is not financially possible), the beautifully written and directed film by Siân Heder becomes a journey down two paths – one that she knows or the one she dreams of.
Never making that decision in black and white, Heder’s compassionate film is truly a coming-of-age story for a girl who may have always believed she was a stranger in her own family, but discovers the true meaning of this family it is true. I haven’t seen the French version, which was nominated for six Caesar Awards in 2015 and was a box office success there, but it’s hard to imagine Heder’s version in English and the languages of the American signs could be better than it is. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and its timing is perfect as the world longs for the family bonds that hold us together. There is a lot to love CODA.
It helps to have such an engaging cast, led by a simply singing and remarkable performance by Jones (Locke and key), who not only needed to be believable in a difficult role that required learning ASL, but also to be believable as a singer so promising that her teacher would distinguish her for big things to come. Jones had no musical background, but fits the bill perfectly as the film moves back and forth between his family life and his musical and romantic aspirations. As the boy she has an eye on, Walsh-Peelo is sweetly charming, and their scenes together add a youthful innocence and a real sparkle. As parents, veterans Kotsur and Matlin are wonderful here, hilariously selfish when their sex life takes center stage, but truly loving as a mom and dad for a girl unlike them and their son who were born in a hearing world. A key scene between Matlin and Jones in which Jackie explains her feelings as she found out her newborn baby could hear will make you cry. Matlin, as if proof is needed, is simply superb in every aspect of this character. Kotsur is perfectly cranky and dead like a man who lives off the sea, but is a really good parent. Durant is just as well especially in interactions with his sister, a sometimes difficult relationship that any brother or sister can relate to.
Heder, whose first film of 2016 Tallulah also played at Sundance, wisely changed the family profession from dairy farming to running a fishing boat operation; the picaresque setting lends a lot to the visual style and adds a nice salty touch to give this version a distinct identity of its own. Music is also a key factor in the film’s success, as Heder and composer Marcus De Vries put an end to the idea that deaf people cannot enjoy music. It ties together beautifully here not only with the score but also the choice of songs, leading to a touching sequence where the family sees a performance by Ruby and her classmates. Heder never resorts to anything flashy from a distance to bring it all on screen, keeping it human and authentic until the perfect final images.
The producers are Philippe Rouselet, Patrick Wachsberger, Fabrice Gianfermi and Pathe. CODA is a keeper.