Sundance 2021: Sian Heder's 'CODA' is a Revolution in Deaf Cinema
by Alex Billington
January 29, 2021
Nothing can compare to that experience of watching a film premiere for its first time, knowing that from this point on it will reshape the industry. That's the case with CODA (which stands for Child of Deaf Adults) - one of the Opening Night films at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Despite all the hardship and challenges over the last pandemic year, there's still some extraordinary films being made just waiting for their chance to shine (and one day play in the cinema again). CODA is one of the best Sundance openers since Whiplash. It is a genuine revolution for Deaf cinema. And I really mean that - it has the power and potential to change everything, from opening the doors to the Deaf community in filmmaking, to changing the way we work with and interact with Deaf individuals all over the world. And it's a wonderful crowd-pleaser to enjoy anyway.
Written and directed by filmmaker Sian Heder (also of Tallulah), this film is actually a remake of a French film from 2014 titled La Famille Bélier, with a similar premise. Emilia Jones stars in CODA as Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of a Deaf family living by the ocean in New England. Her father and brother work as local fishermen, and she often helps them on their boat. Being the only one in her family that can hear, she also interprets for them and has done so her whole life. But she also loves music and loves to sing. And she is an excellent singer, with the potential to study at a prestigious music school after high school. The setup for the film is obvious but it all works - intriguing a singing prodigy comes from a Deaf family, they clash over her leaving home and leaving them, plus all the usual coming-of-age tropes are in it, too. But it's the best version of this kind of fun story, exquisitely balancing humor and heart and honesty as it plays out.
I am totally blown away by CODA's perfectly balanced Deaf humor - I don't think we've ever seen anything like this before. It is a revolution in the way we watch and enjoy Deaf performances, between the noises of sign language playing a part in the experience, to endless jokes delivered in sign language. It's made even better because the cast is made up of Deaf actors, who bring their own spice & flavor to their performances, improvising comedy in sign language and making it all the more authentic. As a hearing person, I can learn from depictions like this, and learn to appreciate their experience in life. And there's one particular scene in this that is superbly revelatory showing us that experience. In addition, some of the most emotional scenes in this are completely silent, because all the dialogue is in sign language and yet we still feel the full weight of the emotions. Of course. Between this and Sound of Metal, nothing will ever be the same for Deaf cinema.
One of the best parts of Sundance is sitting together with the world premiere audience watching a film play for its very first time. And while this year, we're all watching from home around the world, I could still feel how extraordinarily this would've played inside the big Eccles Theatre in Park City on Opening Night. There are at least two scenes that would've received instant rapturous applause. It would've played HUGE with an audience. Clapping and cheering throughout, laughter from everyone echoing off the walls, building up the buzz. And the audience would've erupted into an instant standing ovation at the end. I'm pointing all of this out because it's just a reminder of the power of great cinema, and even sitting at home watching this on my own couch, I could still feel this electric vibe reaching across the world and connecting all of us. And that connects even deeper with the film because of how important vibration is as a vibrant sense for Deaf people.
CODA is the kind of wonderful Sundance film that leaves everyone who watches it in a joyful, smiling, happy mood and that's such a relief to feel these days. It may be corny but it's so much fun, thanks to Sian Heder telling this story with such care and attention and understanding. Emilia Jones is magnificent in the lead role, but it's her father Frank, played by Troy Kotsur, that really steals the show. Every moment with him is even better than the one before, and he made me laugh so much. And the scenes with him at the end are the very best in the entire film. This is the kind of Sundance film I love seeing and it just made me laugh and smile and cry and feel so good about family. Now I want to share that uplifting feeling with everyone else, this is a film that everyone needs to see. It is a magical experience to participate in the very first showing of a film that can have an impact on the world, and remind us how similar we all are despite our differences.