CODA is the first great movie of the year

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock, Sundance Institute)

The biggest disappointment of CODA, one of the opening-day films of this year's Sundance Film Festival, is that it wasn't able to receive its deserved standing ovation in Park City's Eccles Theater. By virtue of this year's nearly all-virtual festival, the most significant reactions to the film were in the privacy of attendee's assorted homes: chuckles and belly-laughs on apartment couches, and — at least on my end — the kind of waterworks that would have mortified me in a crowd.

But the fractured nature of this year's film festival shouldn't temper the celebration of CODA, which in all likelihood will be not just one of the best movies at Sundance, but of the year.

The title's acronym, which stands for "Child Of Deaf Adults," describes Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), a high school senior who divides her time between serving as an interpreter for her family, working on her father's fishing boat, and pursuing her love of singing. Juggling all three, though, is an impossible task, and Ruby has to sort through her complicated sense of familial obligation and the independence she feels she owes herself. Writer/director Siân Heder shot the movie entirely in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 2019 — the same rough locale as another major Sundance hit, 2016's Manchester By the Sea. But there is no soggy melancholy in Heder's script, which is luminously funny, although it will have you in tears by its final scene.

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Both Heder and Jones learned sign language for the film, while CODA's deaf characters are played by deaf actors Marlee Matlin (the Oscar-winning actress of Children of a Lesser God, who plays Ruby's mother), Daniel Durant (Ruby's older brother Leo), and Troy Kotsur (Ruby's father). Jones' performance is award-worthy, but some of the best scenes belong to her co-stars, including an awkward and hilariously graphic sex talk by Ruby's well-meaning father.

Critics are already describing CODA as a "crowd-pleaser," even if there was never an assembled crowd to actually see it. But the term perhaps downplays how special the film is, too. Matlin personally championed the film to the point of what she describes as obsession, praising CODA to The Los Angeles Times as an authentic depiction of deaf people in normal, day-to-day life.

But CODA isn't just authentic with its subjects in terms of their disability — it's authentic with the treatment of their emotions, too. By the movie's end, you fully understand: The last word in the script isn't the spoken "go," urging someone away. It's the signed I love you, holding them close.

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