Adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier by writer-director Siân Heder, what sets CODA apart from other formulaic Netflix-adjacent fare is its focus on the deaf community. Heder cast deaf actors to play deaf characters, including subtitles and bringing deaf collaborators into the filmmaking process. Nevermind the standard set-up—CODA's warmth, genuine chemistry amongst all the leads, and look into an underserved community make the film a rewarding watch.
Set in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the film centers around Ruby Rossi, a 17-year-old girl who's the "child of deaf adults" (hence the film's title), Jackie and Frank (played wonderfully by Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur). Her brother Leo (Daniel Durant) is deaf as well, making her the only hearing person in the family. She has spent her whole life deftly interpreting for her rambunctious family, sometimes putting her in awkward situations like telling her parents that they have jock itch.
Ruby spends her mornings on her father's boat catching monkfish, serving as a hearing deckhand, bargaining for the day's catch, and making sure her family doesn't get ripped off all before going to school. When she signs up for choir class, her abilities catch the eye of Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who encourages and coaches her to apply for Berklee College of Music—a decision that would upend the emotional and financial dynamics of her family.
Music plays a massive part in the CODA, weaving itself in with both the deaf and hearing characters. Like in one scene, her family picks Ruby up from school, blasting 2Chainz at a surreally high volume because Frank likes rap music's vibrations. (In the post-screening Q&A, Kotsur related this scene was based on a real-life event, except instead of rap music, it was "Jesus music"). Or when Mr. Villalobos asks Ruby how singing makes her feel, she does not speak but instead signs her emotions, a moment when I—TBH—started weeping.
Both Matlin and Kotsur are joys to watch in the roles as parents who fuck (loudly), smoke weed, and enjoy helping Leo find girls to date on Tinder. Despite Ruby's desire to sing being foreign to her family, their genuine attempt to understand and love her resonates. While CODA might seem undercooked, Heder pulls an emotional rawness out of the story. It set a perfect opening tone for the Sundance Film Festival.
You can watch CODA on-demand via Sundance starting Saturday, January 30.