The annual Sundance Film Festival began its 2021 run last evening on January 28th with a selection from the U.S. Dramatic Competition entitled CODA (Children of Deaf Adults). CODA stars the likes of Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant (all of whom are deaf), as well as Eugenio Derbez, and Emilia Jones (Locke and Key) in her breakout role.
The film is directed and written by Siân Heder, who made her Sundance directorial debut with Tallulah in 2016. Heder had adapted the English/ASL (American Sign Language) film from the original French version La Famille Bélier (2015), which itself garnered six Cesar award nominations and critical acclaim. CODA is produced by Philippe Rouselet, Patrick Wachsberger, Fabrice Gianfermi and Pathé Films. The musical score is beautifully composed by Marcus De Vries, rightfully putting to bed the idea that deaf people are unable to appreciate music, a stigma Heder was adamant about addressing.
CODA centers around Ruby Rossi (Jones), a seventeen-year-old student and the only hearing member of her family. Ruby acts as translator between her family members (Matlin, Kotsur and Durant) and the townspeople in their coastal Boston area. In an exclusive interview with Deadline, actor Emilia Jones reflects on her experience in CODA, she says “I loved that Ruby [is] an interpreter for her family. That meant that I would’ve had to have learned ASL, how to work a fishing boat and how to gut fish.” The true conflict in this comedy-drama arises when Ruby joins her school’s choir for her crush (Sing Street’s Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), but ironically discovers her own immense vocal talents. Ruby, an invaluable aid to her family, faces both an internal and external conflict. She must choose between following her dreams to Berklee College of Music or staying home to sustain the family’s fishing business.
CODA has begun to receive rave reviews for its performances and representation, something Sundance has been keen on improving over the last few years. Deadline reports that the 2021 season is currently seeing 50% of its films directed by women, 51% by people of color, and 15% by those who identify as LGBTQ+. CODA not only features the thoughtful direction of Heder, but also represents the deaf or auditorily impaired culture and utilizes ASL.
Also in the Deadline exclusive interview, Marlee Matlin, who plays the mother to Jones’ Ruby, professed her love and excitement upon reading the refreshing screenplay. She says, “I told [Sian Heder] probably a hundred million times that, ‘I need to be in this movie, I must be in this movie, I have to do this movie.” Along with her successful career in Hollywood, Matlin is an important activist for the deaf community and a prominent member of the National Association of the Deaf.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place from January 28th-February 3rd. The festival program includes line-ups/competitions in the following categories: U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, World Cinema Dramatic, World Cinema Doc., Premieres, Spotlight Films (favorites/classics), Next (innovative storytelling), Midnight (horror/bizarre), Indie Series, Short Films, Special Screenings (one-of-a-kind/independents), and Talks and Events.