SUNDANCE Review: ‘Coda’ Is A Lovely, Quirky Story We Don’t See Enough

Coda is an entertaining, funny, heartfelt look at a family. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a teenager and the only hearing member of her family and she becomes torn between being there for her family or her dream of becoming a singer. Ruby has long been the defender and interpreter for her family, both for phone calls, orders, and working on their fishing boat. She initially had no dreams outside of her life, but when she sees a boy she likes signs up for choir and she follows suit, new opportunities are set in motion.

Written and directed by Siân Heder (Tallulah), the film gives a hilarious, offbeat but joyful look at a family we rarely get to see onscreen. The family dynamics are present in all their ups and downs. Ruby being the interpreter for her parents leads to discomfort and unforeseen comedy. Particularly, when she has to go to the doctor with both her parents because they are having an issue with their itchy nether regions. It’s cringe but in a comical, relatable way especially as many of us have scream-worthy stories regarding our parent/s and sex. I had secondhand embarrassment witnessing this and probably would still react the same way as Ruby. 

Acting Stands Out

The acting across the board is really good. Marlee Martin (What The Bleep Do We Know?) and Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s parents, Jackie and Frank, bring a lot of hilarity and, for some like Miles, envy. They’ve been together years and they still love each other and love sex, to Ruby’s chagrin. Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s teacher, Bernardo Villalobos, is perfect as the caring but gruff choir teacher who pushes Ruby out of the shell she hides in at school. Her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant, You), and Ruby bicker in the typical manner siblings do. The family interactions are amazing because it’s both similar and different. They argue about Ruby possibly attending college for music and her mom scoffs and asks if she were blind instead of deaf, would Ruby want to become a painter. But the conflicts all come from fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of missed opportunities, fear of failure. 

Coda still of Emilia Jones on a fishing boat
Emilia Jones appears in CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Does Not Feel Contrived But An Authentic Portrayal Of Disability

The fact that this is a deaf family is not hidden or downplayed. It exists as it is and that authenticity isn’t always demonstrated properly in film. Often depictions on celluloid of any marginalized group lack depth, and trivializes or makes caricatures of us. This film doesn’t do that, it shows the challenges Ruby faces being picked on for her family not only due to the fact that they are deaf, but because they also make a living fishing. It shows the fear that Jackie has of losing her child if her child leaves, and the fear that she will not be able to connect and make friends with people who can hear. Even Jackie’s fear that she won’t be able to connect with Ruby because Ruby can hear stems from her reflection on her own relationship with her mother. It’s both a unique and broad experience wondrously executed. 

When people are different from what is considered the default in a society, we withdraw at times. We are not necessarily to blame for this reticence. We can only put ourselves out there so many times before we become exhausted with the jokes, criticisms, or lectures. With disability, you will usually have well-meaning and not so well-meaning abled-bodied people lecture you about how to heal or manage your disability. We are viewed as not knowing our disability well—because we are disabled—and the average able-bodied person, by simply being able-bodied, are themselves considered an authority. 

While not always overt in the film, there is a failure of a society that continues to view large swaths of the population as the fringe of society and therefore don’t make room for them. Films like these highlight the differences and similarities and seek the bridge that gap as well as share a story of struggle, growth, and exploration. This film does all three magnificently and will bring audiences to tears. 

Rating: 4/5

Feature photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

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