Sundance 2021: Coda, by David Bax
Supplied with the narrative pillars of Sian Heder’s Coda, you could probably map out the basic plot with your eyes closed. A teenage outcast finds a new passion with the help of a caring but bristly instructor but must navigate her newfound sense of identity through the choppy waters of budding romance and familial friction. The Karate Kid perfected this formula over 35 years ago. But there’s no reason not to cook a recipe with a proven track record, especially when you’re bringing the level of honest and compassionate ingredients to the table that Heder has here.
High school student and dedicated Boston Bruins fan Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a family of deaf fishers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which means her duties as daughter and deckhand also include a position as full time interpreter. It also means that her parents (Troy Kotsur and national treasure Marlee Matlin) and her brother (Daniel Durant) aren’t predisposed to understand why she joins the school choir, even after she’s encouraged by her eccentric teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), and discovers she has natural chemistry with her duet partner, Miles (Sing Street‘s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo).
Like many coming of age movies, Coda is a comedy. And, thankfully, it’s not one of those that resorts to highlighting its female lead’s awkwardness or klutziness for laughs. Instead, Heder (who also wrote the screenplay) employs witty, character-driven dialogue (both spoken and signed) and a brand of situational irony unique to the presence of so many deaf characters. In one of the film’s most daringly funny moments, she hilariously undercuts the climactic choir performance with Ruby’s family in the audience chatting away about dinner plans.
There’s also plenty of comedy to be mined from the unique opportunities being a deaf parent offers to embarrass your kids, like dad Frank pulling into the school parking lot with party rap music absolutely blaring (he enjoys the bass and doesn’t know or care what the raunchy lyrics are). But that’s also a part of Coda‘s design for depicting the specifics of the deaf community (including the indifference toward certain hang-ups and boundaries in the hearing community, to Ruby’s further mortification) without overexplaining them.
In the end, the result of all this care, attention to detail and love for its characters is a series of overwhelmingly emotional crescendos. The tearjerking moments arrive in waves in Coda‘s final act but, because they’re come by so honestly, each swell and crest are welcome.