There’s a reason why we have coming-of-age movie tropes. They’re often appealing, lend themselves to clearly communicate particular ideas, and spark certain emotions. You can go one way or the other with such storytelling devices. You can merely lean on them as a road map offering the easiest possible route to the desired response, something that often feels conventional and forced. Or, you can use familiar genre assets to bolster the impact of something new. That’s exactly what writer-director Siân Heder accomplishes with CODA.

Inspired by the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, CODA stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, the title character, a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). As the only hearing person in her family, Ruby’s parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and brother (Daniel Durant) often rely on her to keep the family’s fishing business afloat. When she isn’t working on their boat, Ruby’s trying to make her way through high school. When she impulsively follows her crush (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and joins the school choir, she discovers a passion for singing, a passion her family seemingly can’t share and also one that clashes with her family business obligations.

In a sense, Ruby’s your average high school senior. She’s dealing with pressures from her parents, the challenge of navigating the high school social scene and keeping control of sky high nerves near that crush of hers, Miles. While that might all sound very familiar, it’s the specifics of Ruby’s situation and the earnestness with which Heder explores them that makes her story a coming-of-age crowd-pleaser that’s especially unique and also quite profound.

Amy Forsyth, Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kostur in CODA
Image via Sundance

Jones is essentially challenged to bring two sides of Ruby together. On the boat and docks, Ruby operates with confidence, determined to insure her family gets what they’re owed for their hard work. At school? Ruby’s totally out of her element. She’s bullied frequently by classmates and rather than snap back and command the scene like she does on the docks, with her peers, she clams up. Not only does Jones convey that believable resourcefulness when it comes to the family business, but she also manages to offer up a sense of Ruby’s history and how it’s brought her to this specific place at school – even down to her impulsive decision to sign up for choir behind Miles. Yes, the crush she has on him is clearly a factor but, whether she knows it or not at the time, she’s a young adult reaching for something of her own, and that’s a driving force through much of the film.

But Ruby’s story isn’t as simple as breaking free of family obligations. Not only is Ruby well aware that her family truly needs her in order to navigate the local fishing business packed with hearing people who don’t sign, but she also deeply cares for her family. That’s a lot for one kid to deal with right there and CODA conveys it all extremely effectively thanks to Jones’ work and also to how well Heder builds the characters around her.

In order to feel the full force of the weight on Ruby’s shoulders, it was vital for Heder to clearly convey the stakes for the folks around her, and she does so quite well. A standout component in CODA is the family dynamic. The chemistry between Jones, Durant, Kotsur and Matlin is endlessly charming and moving, quickly sparking engagement and deep investment in their situation. But then Heder takes it a step further, fleshing out every member of the Rossi family and selling them as powerful individuals, too. They’re all in this boat together, so to speak. Their livelihoods are on the line, but when you factor in the emotional weight of dealing with that and the inevitable changes that come with Ruby growing up and looking to pursue her own dream, they each approach dealing with that in their own unique ways, ways that speak to their own personal history and place in the family.

Eugenio Derbez in CODA
Image via Sundance

While the characters outside of the Rossi family aren’t as well developed, most do make an impression. Amy Forsyth feels underused as Ruby’s friend Gertie, but her presence does contribute to a couple of standout beats in the movie. And as we saw in Sing Street, Walsh-Peelo can effortlessly sell an undeniable sweetness, well-supporting why Ruby’s drawn to Miles. But as far as this portion of the ensemble goes, it’s Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s choir teacher that makes the most significant impact. He comes in strong as Bernardo Villalobos, teetering on the edge of heightened teacher tough love. However, as his relationship with Ruby develops, Derbez gets the opportunity to show off why Bernardo is so passionate about investing in particular students. That’s when Derbez starts to take that character convention and make it his own, ultimately making Bernardo feel like a fully realized person while significantly contributing to Ruby’s journey.

Every comedic beat in CODA doesn’t land and there are moments here and there that feel a tad contrived, but those types of flaws are absolutely no match for a movie that’s oozing with such passion and heart. You feel it in the performances and in the delicate camerawork. Visually, CODA’s a movie designed to highlight its greatest assets with sensitivity and soul – its lead performance and cast chemistry. It does that, making CODA an undeniable charmer. The movie clocks in at 111 minutes, but it’s not enough. Heder does tell a very full story that well earns its big finish and the puddle of tears I sat in watching it, but she also sparks that special kind of connection between viewer and characters where you just don’t want to leave them.

And while CODA does offer a mighty satisfying conclusion, it’s not an unrealistically neat one that sends the characters on their way without a care in the world. No matter the circumstance, we’re all constantly juggling obligations to friends, family and self. When CODA hits the right notes in that balancing act, it’s downright euphoric.

Grade: A-

For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, peruse the links below:

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