'CODA' Is the Sundance Movie People Will Be Discussing All Year

Apple paid $25 million for the sob-inducing family dramedy.

CODA movie
Emilia Jones | Sundance Film Festival
Emilia Jones | Sundance Film Festival

I don't want to actually describe the moment in the Sundance Film Festival opening night selection CODA that made me start to heave cathartic sobs because that would be a spoiler, but it's a doozy. In that one instance, writer-director Sian Heder uses a cinematic technique to take the audience inside the world of her characters during a climatic school concert. From there through the end of her film, I couldn't stop sobbing.

Those tears are likely one of the reasons CODA has emerged as the most discussed film of this year's virtual festival. IThe movie, a remake of the 2014 French comedy-drama La Famille BĂ©lier, sold to Apple TV+ for $25 million, a sum that beats last year's record sale of Palm Springs to Hulu and Neon. It has earned rave reviews and is already the source of some critical backlash. The title CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, a label that belongs to protagonist Ruby Rossi, played by Emilia Jones. Ruby is the only hearing member of her coastal-Massachusetts-based family, and has acted for most of her life as their interpreter, at home, in public, and on the fishing boat staffed by her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and brother Leo (Daniel Durant). The Rossis are an irreverent, loving bunch. Frank and Ruby's mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin) are still horny for one another after all these years, much to Ruby's embarrassment.

At school, Ruby has been an outcast, teased for how she spoke as a child or for smelling like fish when coming straight from working on the boat. But she loves to sing and signs up for choir where the music teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez) finds she has a gorgeous voice and pushes her to audition for Berklee College of Music. This coincides with a business crisis for her family, to whom her newfound passion is foreign. Jackie is almost insulted that Ruby would choose to pursue something that her mother cannot experience, while worrying at the same time that Ruby could very well be an untalented musician and she would never know the difference.

CODA is a heartwarming, quirky family dramedy of the sort commonly screened at the Sundance Film Festival, but that's not a knock on it. Heder's screenplay, while aiming for big bursts of emotion, takes care to tie its sweetest moments to honest character moments. There's a fear of the unknown in Jackie's criticism of Ruby's singing; it's not just that her daughter is skipping out on family responsibilities, though that does play a part.

Heder is aided by her phenomenal cast, including Jones (one of the stars of Netflix's Locke & Key) and Oscar-winner Matlin. Derbez, one of Mexico's biggest comedy stars, deftly avoids falling into the cliché of the tough-but-tender mentor, while the real revelation is Kotsur, who plays Frank as bawdy, hilarious, and proud. Few roles have been made available for deaf actors that allow this kind of range.

CODA is the kind of movie that you can imagine getting a standing ovation at Sundance, if this were a year where people were allowed to gather in a stuffy Park City auditorium. But its unabashed sentimentality is definitely not for everyone, and naysayers are already coming out of the woodwork to deride the film as being overly saccharine.

For me, all the tears were earned. I'll admit: Despite having been watching movies nearly nonstop during this pandemic, it's been a while since one hit me like this, and I felt relieved to be depleting a box of tissues as I watched. CODA is a feel-good story, yes, but a lot of people are craving cathartic entertainment right now. Given that we still don't know when we'll be going back to theaters, it makes sense that streaming services, like Apple, are looking to beef up their slates with movies that are going to inspire cheers, whether virtual or in person.

Still, it's hard not to see that $25 million price tag as something of a curse for a low-key film like CODA. Right now it's unclear how Apple is planning to release it, but now a surprise hit has an insurmountable amount of expectations attached.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.
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