‘Coda’ is the #1 must-see of 2021’s Sundance Film Festival

Photo from the film, "CODA"
Sundance Institute/Courtesy

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

If there’s anything to take away from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it’s that someone will have made a tragic mistake if “Coda” doesn’t show up on the roster for several Academy Awards. Written and directed by Sian Heder, this film is simultaneously a coming-of-age drama, an uplifting family comedy and a necessary call to action for non-hearing accessibility.

Centered on a Massachusetts family working in the fishing industry, the film follows the life of a spunky Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones): full-time high school senior and part-time translator for her parents and older brother, all born unable to hear. The film’s title is an acronym, standing for “child of Deaf adults.” Ruby struggles with balancing her time as the only hearing individual in her household, and Heder could not have given the character a more somber pastime as Ruby jumps from home to school to … choir practice. 

The story consistently flows without missing a beat. When Ruby and her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), aren’t insulting each other in sign language, Ruby can be found training with her choir teacher — played by a remarkable John Fiore — or escaping familial pressure with her best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth). The friendship between Ruby and Gertie is a gentle and true-to-life take on platonic love, a feat for the portrayal of female friendships on screen. 

In the same vein, every actor’s performance is flawless and full of vibrancy; it’s hard to believe this group of actors isn’t related in real life. It comes as absolutely no surprise that “Coda” won the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast — the award is, by all means, well-deserved.

The Rossi family cannot have been more charmingly shaped; Ruby’s parents display an important level of understanding and patience as Ruby navigates young adulthood. Even in scenes of intense bickering, the many ways in which the family vulnerably communicates with each other are all beautiful and uplifting to witness.

That said, it is impossible to not get emotionally attached to this cast. Whenever Ruby and one of her parents have an emotional scene together, the floodgates simply open. Playing Frank Rossi, Troy Kotsur embodies all of the most endearing dad qualities you can ask for in a film centered on family dynamics. Whether a moment calls for anger, heart-wrenching frustration or swift hilarity, Kotsur delivers with grace and extraordinary flair.

In a bizarrely wonderful early scene, Ruby accompanies her parents on a trip to the doctor to translate her father’s sign language. The exchange — where she has to explain her dad’s genital rash to the doctor, and subsequently, two weeks of abstinence to her parents — is a brilliant, flawless lesson in writing comedy.

“Coda” excels at balancing humor with melodrama, as the narrative frequently teeters between extremes. At a key point surrounding the film’s climax, a clever editing move slowly quiets the film’s sound into oblivion during Ruby’s concert solo, showing how her parents miss out on a key aspect of her life. It’s crushing and raw, but it’s a real experience shown with care and delicacy.

While a majority of the main cast experiences deafness, the movie is not plainly about disability. Instead, “Coda” is about a family growing together, and how notions of responsibility can be nuanced in households depending on support from their youngest members.

It isn’t entirely worthwhile to praise these filmmakers for shedding light on the often untold story of disability when this experience should’ve been normalized in film a long time ago. Rather, the film’s commendable action springs from how it brings attention to the carelessness of people who dehumanize the Deaf community. “Coda” calls for the visibility of both translators and people experiencing deafness, and for a cultural progression toward making the world a more accessible place for everyone. 

The film also preaches that it’s never OK to use Tinder at the dinner table — unless you’re swiping as a family.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.