‘CODA’ Review: Siân Heder’s Family Drama Kicks Off Sundance on a Note of Enthralling Emotion

Watching “CODA,” the tender, lively, funny, and beautifully stirring drama that opened the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, I had the most out-of-body movie-viewing experience I’ve had in the year since movie theaters closed down. I watched the film at home, on a link, late at night, by myself. But I’ve been going to Sundance since 1995, and “CODA,” which tells the story of a high-school girl in Gloucester, Mass., who’s the only hearing person in her family (her parents are deaf, and so is her older brother), is a drama with such a supremely open and connective spirit that watching it, I felt at times like I was literally peering through my screen and into the Eccles Theatre in Park City, sharing the experience with a quintessentially receptive Sundance audience — the kind of crowd, over the years, that I’ve come to cherish watching movies with there.

“CODA,” which features three remarkable deaf actors, is most assuredly a crowd-pleaser, though in this case I want to be specific about what that means. In many ways, it’s a highly conventional film, with tailored story arcs that crest and resolve just so, and emotional peaks and valleys that touch big fat rounded chords of inspiration.

Yet the movie, written and directed by Siân Heder (it’s a remake of the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier”), brings this all off with such sincerity and precision, and the film is so enthrallingly well-acted, that you may come away feeling grateful that this kind of mainstream dramatic craftsmanship still exists, and that it thrives at a place like Sundance. I wouldn’t want every independent film to hit you over the heart as squarely as “CODA” does, yet I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we don’t have movies like this one. In it straightforward way, the film delivers an emotional knockout. It’s a movie about a family, and by the end you may feel you know them as well as you know your own.

The film’s title stands for Children of Deaf Adults, and it refers to hearing children who, having grown up with deaf parents, learn ALS as a first language and are part of the deaf community. Given that title, some may come in with the prejudice of thinking that this all sounds somehow “exotic.” But the whole point, of course, is that it’s not. When we first see Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), she’s on a fishing schooner with her father, the tall, grizzled Frank (Troy Kotsur), and her brother, the squinty and strapping Leo (Daniel Durant), hauling a giant net of fish in from the sea. They’re a family of fishermen, and as they stand in the glinting sun in their orange plastic suits (with rock ‘n’ roll blasting on the radio that only Ruby can hear), tossing the flounder, lobsters, and crab into different buckets, you see just how well they mesh as a unit.

They speak in ASL, a form of communication the film treats with supreme neutrality, even as it gives the audience a de facto crash course in it. Frank, in particular, is a highly colorful and effusive signer, given to eloquently obscene kiss-offs that he spits out with a kind of percussive gesticulation. The signage, like any language, has its own music, and Heder, as a filmmaker, captures its expressive power as fully as I’ve ever seen it captured in a movie.

Troy Kotsur, from “The Mandalorian,” is an extraordinary actor, and here, with squiggly hair, burning eyes, and haggard features set off by a thick gray fisherman’s beard, he looks like Roberts Blossom with a touch of an ancient Frank Zappa. Frank, a pothead and ebullient curmudgeon, is a man of force and fury and, at times, too short a fuse. In his pickup truck, he pumps gangsta rap at top volume so that he can feel the rhythm through the seats, and he says things like “You know why God made farts smell? So deaf people could enjoy them too.” His fishing business is struggling, mostly because the middlemen on the Gloucester docks are squeezing the fisherman dry. But back at the large, messy, ramshackle house that Frank shares with his wife, Jackie (Marlee Matlin), a former beauty queen who’s as gnarly and argumentative as he is, and their two kids, the Rossis are a feisty, happy, settled clan. They support each other and know how to have fun, even if that means passing around Leo’s Tinder prospects at the dinner table.

At school, Ruby is a serenely well-adjusted if somewhat shy senior, with a best friend, Gertie (Amy Forsyth), who acts out the raunchy impulses Ruby is too cautious to consider. Ruby signs up for choir as an elective, and it’s mostly to be near Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a shaggy cute dude who’s got the same quiet gracious vibe she does; the singing is secondary. But Ruby, in fact, has quite a voice, and when the choir teacher walks in, with his dandy glasses and beard and dour smirk and flamboyant accent, and introduces himself with R-rolling theatricality as Ber-narrrrdo Villalobos, we know just what we’re looking at: a teacher who’s going to be a stern taskmaster, a prize eccentric, and a straight-out-of-the-movies inspiration. Eugenio Derbez portrays him with a grandiose persnickety fervor but, beneath that, a note of unspoken sadness, and it’s an irresistible performance because it becomes a lifesize one.

Mr. V fastens onto Ruby’s talent, and sets her up to sing a duet of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” in the fall concert. The fact that her duet partner is Miles is one of the many tidy symmetrical pieces of plotting that drive “CODA.” Will Ruby and Miles become an item as they rehearse together, and sneak off to the swimming quarry, after school? Can Frank, driven by Leo’s buried hunger and ambition, form a fishing co-op on the docks so that he and his fellow fisherman will stop being exploited? How long will it take for Gertie to hook up with Leo? (Not long.)

And then there’s Ruby’s mom. Marlee Matlin plays her with a bracing blend of affection and cantankerousness, making her a bit of a pill, the kind of loving but overly cautious mother who doesn’t realize she’s using her fear to squash the dreams of others. Jackie and Frank have a robust sex life, but they fight like cats and dogs about finances. And Jackie’s relationship with Ruby is even trickier. Ruby, under Mr. V’s influence, wants to apply for a spot at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and Jackie, who already resents her daughter’s attraction to singing (“If I was blind, would you want to paint?”), is now terrified of losing her baby. These two have it out in a scene where Ruby dares to ask her mother if she wishes Ruby had been born deaf. The answer stings, but it’s naked in its honesty, and it kicks off the most wrenchingly emotional movie scene I’ve seen in quite a while.

Siân Heder, who came up as a writer and story editor on “Orange Is the New Black,” has directed just one previous feature (“Tallulah”), but she’s got the gift — the holy essence of how to shape and craft a drama that spins and burbles and flows. There are daring touches in “CODA,” like the way the school concert plays out (rarely have you heard silence this golden). And there are scenes that will stir you to the core, like the one where Frank listens to Ruby sing by holding up his hands to her vocal cords. As Ruby, Emilia Jones acts with a captivatingly authentic purity of feeling. Her Ruby is a girl of vibrant impulses, poised between Motown and the Shaggs — and more than that, between acting as her parents’ communicator to the outside world and communicating to them what’s really on her mind. All of them are great talkers. But the story the movie tells is about what it takes for them to hear each other.

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