Culture Trips

Coda review – formulaic yet sweet-natured crowd-pleaser | Sundance 2021

There’s an earnest old-fashioned Sundance-ness to writer-director Sian Heder’s broad comedy-drama Coda, the kind of warm-hearted crowd-pleaser that the festival is most widely known for. In any normal year, it would probably have been met with audible approval throughout its premiere. But this isn’t a normal year, with the majority of festival goers watching the film at home, perhaps less pumped up by the thrill of seeing it with a crowd. With or without an audience, it’s a minor film, a little too formulaic at times, a tad too comfortable sticking to a dog-eared playbook, eager to be loved but not really trying hard enough to be remembered.

Ruby (Brit Emilia Jones, boasting a pitch perfect American accent) is a Coda – a child of deaf adults – who helps her family fishing business while struggling to stay ahead at high school. Her mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) need her to translate, and so she’s required to be in five places at once, ensuring her brother isn’t getting ripped off before helping her parents understand an awkward medical diagnosis. But when Ruby decides to join the school choir (to be closer to a crush), she realises that singing is a passion she wants to pursue outside just her bedroom, sparking the interest of her music teacher and the ire of her family.

Pleasantly ambling along, hitting every beat one would expect, there’s plenty to like here but nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd, filled with films ever so slightly similar (Coda itself is a remake of French movie La Famille Bélier). Despite the grit of the Massachusetts setting and the earthy way in which Heder chooses to shoot it, Coda firmly takes place in Movie Universe, where a great deal of the action and dialogue isn’t rooted in enough of a recognisable reality for it to have much of an impact. The plot, which contains an inspirational sassy music teacher, a burgeoning young romance, wacky horny parents, a big last act school concert and a big last act singing audition just feels a little too assembled, the end product resembling a generic, low-stakes Netflix teen movie rather than anything of much substance.

The differentiating factor, that Ruby’s family is deaf, does create some of the film’s more interesting situations, and gives us brief insight into an intriguing dynamic that’s been mostly unexplored (plus, we get to learn the sign language for “twat waffle”, which feels important). Depictions of deafness on screen are still incredibly rare and Heder (who made the equally sensitive yet far more effective Tallulah in 2016) handles the set-up with care, showing us the frustrations that are felt by both Ruby and her family, how communication can rapidly go from easy to impossible and how home becomes its own community, safe from judgment and misunderstanding. Jones is a winning, confident lead, believably plucky enough to stand up to the fishermen who denigrate and mistreat her family and a strong enough singer to sell her musical subplot. There’s a non-cloying sweetness to her YA romance scenes, helped largely by the decision to have her and crush tasked with a duet of You’re All I Need to Get By (a song that’s nicely used in a climactic scene with Ruby and her father too) and the aforementioned big concert sequence is smartly designed, allowing her parents to understand the effect her voice has on others.

Heder takes a few too many abrupt shortcuts with some of her plotting, forgetting some characters and shoving other key moments in a montage, with Ruby’s best friend and mother both introduced with gusto then confusingly sidelined and the rise of her family’s relaunched business happening with confusingly breakneck speed. These problems would perhaps be less distracting if Heder accepted that her film takes place in the realm of fantasy, the kind inhabited by Nicholas Sparks adaptations and Lifetime Christmas movies. But it takes itself a little too seriously for that to be the case, leaving it awkwardly stuck between both worlds, the rules it subscribes to not making sense in the structure of a grounded indie drama. Coda is a mostly likable concoction, but one that’s just too formulaic and ultimately rather calculated to secure the emotional response it so desperately wants by the big finale. A sweet but forgettable start to the festival.

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