CODA review: Tender coming-of-age Sundance drama earns its praise (and price)

Originally premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February 2021, CODA is set to hit theaters and Apple TV+ on August 13. Despite its humble origins, CODA emerged from Sundance as a fully realized gem, earning the distinction of the highest purchase price in the festival’s history—$25 million by Apple TV+, surpassing the record set by Palm Springs the previous year.

At first glance, the film’s premise may appear modest—a traditional coming-of-age story set in a small Massachusetts town, featuring predominantly lesser-known actors. However, writer-director Sian Heder’s sophomore feature shines with a unique charm, anchored by its heartfelt narrative. Emilia Jones, known for her role in Netflix’s Locke & Key, delivers a standout performance as Ruby Rossi, the sole hearing member of a deaf family. This sweet and specific premise sets the stage for a touching exploration of identity and belonging.

Sundance 2021

The Rossi family is a lively bunch: Frank, the patriarch, and his son Leo, both rugged fishermen with tattoos, revel in their boisterous lifestyle. They share a deep bond with Jackie, Frank’s vibrant wife, whose midlife vitality and love for her family fill their home with laughter and warmth. Ruby, their daughter, joins them on their early morning fishing trips, balancing her responsibilities on the boat with her high school studies.

Despite the challenges she faces—being teased by classmates and feeling out of place in choir—Ruby finds solace in music, a passion hidden from her deaf family. With the encouragement of her crush and her supportive teacher, Mr. Villalobos, Ruby begins to overcome her fears and embrace her talent.

Writer-director Sian Heder, known for her work on acclaimed TV shows, brings authenticity and heart to Ruby’s journey. While the film occasionally feels more suited to the small screen, Heder’s script beautifully captures the everyday joys and struggles of deafness. Emilia Jones delivers a compelling performance as Ruby, portraying her inner conflict with sincerity and depth. Marlee Matlin shines as Jackie, balancing toughness with tenderness. Daniel Durant and Troy Kotsur also impress with their nuanced performances, conveying a range of emotions without uttering a word.

Together, the cast creates a touching and relatable family dynamic, making CODA both familiar and refreshingly original—a heartwarming tale unlike any other.

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