CODA review: Tender coming-of-age Sundance drama earns its praise (and price)

“CODA,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, stands out as a fully realized cinematic gem, a rarity even in a festival known for showcasing indie treasures. Its exceptional quality was recognized with an unprecedented purchase price of $25 million by Apple TV+, the highest in Sundance history. This surpasses the previous record set by Andy Samberg’s “Palm Springs,” which was acquired for $17.5 million the previous year.

The remarkable acquisition price may initially seem disproportionate to the film’s seemingly modest premise—a classic coming-of-age story set in a small Massachusetts town and featuring mostly lesser-known actors. However, the charm of writer-director Sian Heder’s breakout second feature is readily apparent, largely stemming from the endearing specificity of her premise. British actress Emilia Jones, known for her role in Netflix’s “Locke & Key,” shines as Ruby Rossi, the sole hearing member of a deaf family.

The Rossis are a lively bunch: Patriarch Frank (played by Troy Kotsur) and his adult son Leo (portrayed by Daniel Durant) are rugged fishermen with a penchant for tattoos and rough humor. They revel in drinking, smoking, and cracking fart jokes, with Frank often indulging in loud, passionate encounters with his wife Jackie (played by Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), who exudes a youthful energy in her skinny jeans. Ruby, the only hearing member of the family, joins them at 3 a.m. each day to help haul in the day’s catch before school. Despite her early mornings and hard work, Ruby faces ridicule at school, where mean girls mock her for smelling like fish, and even her best friend Gertie (played by Amy Forsyth) struggles to understand her passion for choir.

Music, a passion that Ruby keeps hidden from her deaf family, brings her immense joy despite also instilling fear. While they cannot hear her singing along to old Motown songs and Nina Simone as she works, or belting them out in her bedroom, music remains a source of solace and fulfillment for her. However, the prospect of public performance terrifies Ruby. It takes a budding crush on a classmate, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (“Sing Street”), and the supportive guidance of her teacher, Mr. Villalobos (portrayed by Eugenio Derbez), to gradually coax her out of her apprehensive shell and encourage her to embrace her talent on a broader stage.

Heder, primarily known for her work on television shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Little America,” ensures that Ruby’s journey is one of growth and self-discovery, leaving little doubt that she will navigate both her first romantic experiences and her long-term career aspirations. Despite its cinematic presentation, “CODA” often retains the intimate feel and storytelling approach reminiscent of television, reflecting Heder’s background. Nevertheless, the film is expertly executed, featuring moments of genuine emotion and authenticity, along with occasional profanities characteristic of premium cable content. While a few sitcom-like moments may feel out of place, they are minor flaws in a script that effectively sheds light on the often overlooked world of deafness, portraying it with joyful realism.

Emilia Jones, who underwent intensive training in voice work and American Sign Language for her role, delivers a remarkably authentic portrayal of a teenager navigating the complexities of familial obligations and personal aspirations. She effortlessly embodies the internal conflict of a young girl torn between her love for her family and her larger dreams for herself. Marlee Matlin delivers a powerful performance, balancing toughness with tenderheartedness, while Daniel Durant and Troy Kotsur excel in largely wordless roles, conveying a range of emotions—anger, vulnerability, and outrageous humor—with remarkable depth in every scene. Together, they elevate “CODA” into a captivating family drama, blending the best elements of familiar storytelling with a fresh perspective on deaf culture, making it a truly unique cinematic experience.

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