If the coronavirus pandemic has forced the Sundance Film Festival to reinvent itself virtually this year, it could not have gotten off to a more satisfying start than with CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), the warm coming-of-age story of a hearing child in a deaf family. With deaf actors including Children of a Lesser God Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, refreshingly cast here in an irresistible mixed ensemble, and scenes that aren’t afraid to play in silence for a hearing audience, this film based on the award-winning French hit La famille belier is a breath of fresh air that grabbed the prestigious opening-night slot for the U.S. Dramatic Competition and proves a real crowd pleaser with great potential to be a breakout smash for whatever distributor snaps it up. It hits you right in the heart, not only as a moving story of what it means to be in a family, but also one about becoming your own person and following a dream.
At its center is a breakout performance from 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 problems when authorities threaten their livelihood. She has always been there, but Ruby is also an aspiring singer in her high school musical choir which she joined in order to get closer to her crush Miles (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), and finds herself longing to break away to follow her own path with entry into Boston’s Berklee College of Music, an opportunity being pushed by her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez). That is complicated by the responsibility she feels for her family and her own role in it as their connection to the outside world.
With the family discouraging her musical ambition due to their own circumstances (hiring someone to be their conduit is not financially possible), the film beautifully written and directed by Siân Heder becomes about travelling one of two paths — the one she knows or the one she dreams of.
Never making this a black-and-white decision, Heder’s compassionate film really is a coming-of-age story for a girl who may have always believed she was an outsider in her own family, but finds out the true meaning of what family really is. I haven’t seen the French version, which was nominated for six Cesar awards in 2015 and was a box office smash there, but it is hard to imagine Heder’s version in English and American Sign Language could be any better than it is. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and its timing is just right at this time when the world is longing for the familial connections that keep us together. There is much to love about CODA.
It helps to have such an appealing cast, led by a simply lilting and remarkable performance from Jones (Locke & Key), who not only had to be believable in a challenging role that required learning ASL, but also had to be credible as such a promising singer that her teacher would single her out for big things to come. Jones had no musical training, but fits the bill perfectly as the film darts back and forth between her family life and her musical and romantic yearnings. As the boy she has her eye on, Walsh-Peelo is sweetly charming and their scenes together add youthful innocence and real spark. As the parents, veterans Kotsur and Matlin are wonderful here, hilariously self-absorbed when their sex life takes center stage, but genuinely loving as mom and dad to a daughter, unlike them and their son, born into a hearing world. A key scene between Matlin and Jones in which Jackie explains her feelings the moment she discovered her newborn could hear will have you in tears. Matlin, as if any proof is needed, is just superb in all aspects of this character. Kotsur is blissfully cranky and dead on as a man who lives off the sea, but who is a genuinely good parent. Durant is equally fine particularly in interactions with his sister, a sometimes rocky relationship with which any sibling will be able to identify.
Heder, whose 2016 debut film Tallulah also played Sundance, has wisely changed the family profession from dairy farming to running a fishing boat operation; the picaresque setting lends much to the visual style and adds a nice salty touch to give this version a distinct identity all its own. Music also is a key factor in the film’s success, as Heder and composer Marcus De Vries put to rest the notion that deaf people can’t appreciate music. It is bridged gorgeously here not only with the score but also the choice of songs, leading to a touching sequence where the family attends a performance by Ruby and her classmates. Heder doesn’t ever resort to anything remotely flashy in bringing this all to the screen, keeping it human and authentic right up to the perfect final images.
Producers are Philippe Rouselet, Patrick Wachsberger, Fabrice Gianfermi and Pathe. CODA is a keeper.