The Sundance Favorite Has Arrived
CODA might be known for winning both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and it has finally landed on Apple TV+ for all to see. I was lucky enough to catch it on a screener link before it did, and it does not disappoint. It's clear to me why it won both Sundance Awards, which is rare. The film dives into deaf culture with a deft hand and a careful lens. The coming-of-age drama/comedy chronicles a deaf family, but follows the one family member who is not (Child of Deaf Adults), who wants to pursue her passion of singing, and tackles the struggles that go along with that. The film does many things well, but I am going to tackle each one specifically.
Let's get to it.
It's unsurprising to see me praise the screenplay of the film, given who and what I am, but it's the film's strongest aspect and the primary reason it succeeds on the level that it does. I included the comedy genre along with coming-of-age drama because there's a lot of comedy contained within this screenplay, mainly in the beginning, but is sprinkled throughout. The film, from my limited perspective, captures deaf culture extremely well and handles it with care. It's my understanding casting gathered deaf people for the roles within the family dynamic, and the lead, Emilia Jones, of course, is not. However, she does speak ASL throughout the course of the film, and she does it well. Back to the screenplay, the film is incredibly well written in my eyes. It deftly balances the comedic elements with the dramatic, and is structured quite well, also. The script strikes a remarkable balance between the comedic and the dramatic, as much of the film's tone is pretty lighthearted amongst the inevitable conflict and drama that would arise out of the already intriguing premise. There are moments in which it delves into dangerously cliche territory, but it always finds its way back. There are also times in which it takes a turn for the cheesy, but the film is so authentic and genuinely emotional that it really doesn't matter, at least for me. The character work and family dynamics here are also written so well that I was fully invested all the way through. The pivotal moments in the screenplay are also written so well that you hardly notice that it sometimes fits too neatly into tried and true, formulaic storytelling. The rest is so expertly written that it outshines perhaps the moments of eye-roll city, or the all too familiar tropes of the genre.
As I alluded to, deaf actors were cast for Ruby (the Lead's) parents and brother. The director fought hard to have deaf actors portray the deaf family because she was quoted saying, "Deafness is not a costume you can put on." Emilia Jones really carries us through the film, but Marlee Martin, her mother, Troy Kostur, her father, and Daniel Durant, her brother; their performances are so strong and are the standouts among the rest. There is a terrific supporting cast at play here, but the deaf actors cast make the film what it truly is. Another notable performance is her choir teacher, Eugenio Derbez, as Bernardo. His charisma, no-nonsense, and eccentricity adds an interesting blend of a fair amount of levity as well as a tinge of seriousness to the music/singing subplot. Ruby's crass best friend Gertie, portrayed by Amy Forsyth, also adds some much needed comic relief and absolutely nails the role. Her comedic timing is on-point and her delivery dry, which brings humor in often unexpected ways. The cast all works in tandem to bring to life a magnificent script with their expert acting as a totally underrated ensemble.
The film, in addition to having a knockout script and killer acting, succeeds on its confident direction. Directed by Sian Heder, the film has specific, calculated directorial choices which really add to the film's overall impact and sets it apart from the rest within the genre. For example, there's a pivotal moment in the film towards the end of the 2nd act, early 3rd act which is much akin to a climax where Heder makes a choice (not to spoil anything) which puts us in the perspectives of the deaf family as opposed to giving us the perspective of those who could hear what's going on. This, to me, sets it apart from the rest since I believe most directors would have chosen to go down the path of least resistance, or the road most traveled. It was effective and equally affecting. There are directorial choices like this sprinkled throughout the film which deviate it from typical, run-of-the-mill coming-of-age dramas of the kind. Heder had a singular vision for this film, and it also helps she wrote the script, so she very likely had these ideas when writing them as opposed to conjuring them up on set.
Can winning Sundance perhaps overrate a film? Does it carry the baggage of accolades which also brings the assumption of top shelf quality? Possibly. All concerns were alleviated when I watched this film on my laptop on a chill Thursday night. It's a feel-good, oftentimes dramatic, poignant, and emotionally impactful story of family, coping with disability, and following one's heart. The screenplay is an absolute banger which serves as the primary reason this film succeeds at the highest level. The performances across the board also carry the film, as much as performances need to when dealing with subject matter such as this. The film's assured direction is another contributing factor in the film's overall quality as well as breaking the mold as far as coming-of-age dramas (dramedies) are concerned. The film succeeds at very nearly every level, the sound (or lack thereof), the bright and vibrant cinematography, the authenticity, and genuine nature of the themes all combine to create a top-notch finished product, with the awards to boot. I highly recommend this film, and at the risk of sounding cliche, it's great fun for the entire family, as well.
CODA was acquired at Sundance (breaking their record for largest purchase previously held by Palm Springs (2020)) by Apple TV+ and is currently available to stream on that platform as well as a limited theatrical release that will expand to more theaters in the weeks to come, wherever theaters are safely open.