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Movie Review: 'CODA' Will Nail The Sweet Spot For Many, Many People

CODA - Still 1
Seacia Pavao
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Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Emilia Jones appears in CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The biggest crowd-pleaser at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival—outside of Questlove’s glorious documentary Summer of Soul—had to be the family drama CODA, which took home every top award, and if the festival had been in person, they probably would have had to build a new roof for the theater, because the reaction would have blown it off.

It’s the story of Ruby, a teenage girl who works with her family’s small fishing business in Gloucester, Mass., and who is the only member of her family who isn’t deaf. She doesn’t have it easy—the tiny business is struggling, her family relies on her to ease communication with the rest of the community, and she’s stretched thin between her obligations to them and to school. One day, she sees a boy she likes sign up for school choir, and on a whim, she signs up, too. And, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out she’s pretty great at singing.

The basic story is one we know, where a young person has something they love doing, but they're obstructed by family matters, whether those are cultural constraints, societal constraints, or something else-- think along the lines of Bend It Like Beckham or Billy Elliot. In this case, it's her family's genuine need for her help, and the dedication she feels toward them despite her burgeoning love of music. The title nods to both sides of this, as it’s of course a reference to music, but also a common acronym that stands for "Child of Deaf Adult."

The movie hits all the proper, rousing notes for this kind of story, but in a quieter way, which is understandable given so much of the film is in sign language. Fortunately, it actually highlights the strengths of using a cast that includes a number of deaf members, without that being treated like a novelty. Nor is it treated like it doesn't matter. It does matter, as we see how ill-equipped our world is to deal with people who are set up in just a slightly different way. CODA follows a formula, sure, but it’s funny, and tender, and exactly the kind of movie that will nail the sweet spot for many, many people.

CODA is available on Apple+ on August 13 and in theaters soon.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.