Coming of age offerings are commonplace at Sundance, so much so that several of them suffer from a similar web of cliched mechanics. Many films strive for a finite balance between emotional warmth and authenticity, yet numerous festival duds show the immense difficulty in achieving that thin line. Thankfully, writer/director Sian Heder’s opening-night effort CODA strikes a remarkably assured chord, avoiding saccharine schmaltz in favor of a genuinely heart-warming experience.
CODA follows Ruby (Emilia Jones), a shy high school student living as a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) with her fisherman family (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kostur play her parents while Daniel Durant portrays her older brother). Ruby begins to find her passion when joining Mr. Villalobos’s choir class (Eugino Derbez), but faces hesitation over potentially moving on from her dependent family.
Set amidst the rustic waters of Eastern Massachusetts, Heder’s distinctly working-class tale of familial bonds articulates a sharper lens than most of its genre peers. Her subdued direction choices work to extenuate the textured environment without utilizing gimmicky score choices or overworked dramatic beats. It’s a joy to watch a director self-assured in her calm presentation, trusting the material’s strengths enough to let them take center stage.
CODA’s finite familial nucleus radiates with joy and intimacy. Emilia Jones is a true breakout as Ruby, a character finding her voice amidst years of bullying by her peers. Jones imbues the character with strength and authenticity, allowing her journey of self-discovery to register in relatable ways. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kostur are a delight as Ruby’s lively parents, displaying charming, personable energies that morph into quiet intimacy during the film’s dramatic frames. Daniel Durant also delivers conviction to Ruby’s supportive brother while Eugenio Derbez elicits a snippy humor streak out of his rigid, yet well-meaning music teacher role.
Heder’s effort draws a strong emotional bond from its well-articulated dynamics. As the narrative picks up steam, Heder intelligently delves into the challenges behind Ruby’s tight-knit family dynamic. Her family co-dependently relies on her to help their business and provide communication, but Ruby seeks to find her own passions as she approaches the end of adolescents. Universal sentiments on growing up and familial responsibility avoid tense discomfort through Heder’s infectious appreciation of family’s unwavering love for one another. Their strong commitment to each other allows meaningful exploration without any falsely over-dramatic moments. Heder’s heart-tugging final frames bookend the narrative with a positive emotional punch, never missing a beat where most contemporaries would drift into cheap melodrama.
Some may critique CODA’s overwhelmingly positive energy, but frankly, that’s a facet I happily embrace. Sian Heder’s film thrives as a thoughtful crowdpleaser that won’t leave many dry eyes in its path.
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