Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with “CODA,” written and directed by Sian Heder (“Tallulah”). Based on the 2014 French film “La Famille Bélier,” “CODA” follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, “Locke and Key”), a 17-year-old CODA (child of deaf adults). When she joins her school’s choir, she is torn between helping out with her family’s business and embracing her love for music. Although at times predictable, “CODA” provides a comedic, heartwarming and fresh perspective on the traditional coming-of-age story with some truly astonishing performances. 

As the only hearing member of her family, she works with her fishermen father and brother, played by Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant in their film debuts. Completing the family is her mother, played by the brilliant Marlee Matlin (“Children of a Lesser God”). The four of them have such remarkable chemistry; whether the family is silently working out at sea or arguing at the dinner table, the audience is fully immersed in their dynamic. 

The strength of “CODA” truly lies in the performances and relationships of these four actors. Because Ruby can hear, she acts as her family’s interpreter in their work life. She doesn’t plan on leaving home and going to college until her choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez, “The Book of Life”) encourages her to audition for the Berklee College of Music. 

Ruby’s passion and talent are beautifully struck against the pressure that she feels to stay and help her family. Heder creates a vivid life for these characters, flawlessly demonstrating the role that Ruby has played in her family since she was a child. But the members of her family, particularly her parents, are given the same depth and compassion. They too are conflicted, bearing the same worries that any parent has about their child growing up and leaving for college.

This conflict is beautifully expressed in what are arguably two of the best scenes in the film. At Ruby’s choir concert, her family sits in the audience, excited to see her perform. But they also watch as the people around them clap along to the beat of the songs or are moved to tears by the performances. 

The sound cuts out (the only time it does in the film), showing the separation that exists between the two things that are most important in Ruby’s life. After the concert, as Ruby and her dad sit outside together, he asks her to sing her solo for him. He rests his hands on her throat as she sings, feeling the vibrations of her vocal cords. This moment is intimate and beautiful, and it perfectly encapsulates all the conflicting emotions that the characters face throughout the film. 

“CODA” is a brilliant addition to the coming-of-age genre. While there may be many films about the anxieties of a high school senior about to leave home, there are none quite like this. 

Despite its formulaic qualities, “CODA” is moving and distinctive, packing an emotional punch by using a somewhat overused plot to tell a unique story, one that has historically been rare to find in the film industry. 

But, perhaps this won’t be the case for much longer. The cast and crew of “CODA” are calling for more collaboration between the deaf community and Hollywood. While it’s been a long time coming, hopefully, “CODA” is just the beginning of a new wave of representation.

Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at judelaw@umich.edu.