Sundance 2021 Review: A Symphony Lies Within Sian Heder’s Spectacular “Coda”

“I have a whole life that has nothing to do with you,” Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) tells Ruby (Emilia Jones) nearly an hour in to “CODA,” upset that she’s arrived late for a voice lesson. As your eyes drift towards the back of his house, you start to see hints of a personal life you hadn’t really considered for the music teacher outside of a classroom, though this is on you rather than writer/director Sian Heder, who has built more than enough details already into understanding why Mr. Villalobos — Bernardo, he prefers — is so invested in pushing Ruby towards pursuing her passion for singing despite the fact she’s afraid of the attention it brings and that her family, all deaf but her, will never be able to listen to her perform.

It’s a small, beautiful moment in a film where they have a habit of accumulating into powerful waves, and a recognition that there’s so much you’d never think to ask about Bernardo’s life opens the door to how much more there is to know about Ruby, whose ability to hear has been a bit of a burden when she’s relied upon to translate for her parents Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and can hear every mean comment at school where she’s largely seen as an other. She’s embarrassed by her family – not because they’re deaf, but because they hardly care what anybody else thinks, encouraging their son Leo (Daniel Durant)’s habit of scrolling through Tinder at the dinner table because it’s something they can all do together.

Within the first few scenes of “CODA,” you learn the signs for “twat waffle” and “jock itch” when Ruby feels she has no choice but to devote herself entirely to be the bridge between her family and the hearing world, required at doctors’ visits where she otherwise wouldn’t belong and working on the family’s fishing boat whenever she’s not at school to make sure the business stays afloat. Yet in signing up for chorus as an extracurricular, she surprises even herself with the possibilities of the voice she has, and you get goosebumps watching the incandescent Jones as Ruby, gradually transcending a mere rendition of Ashford and Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” to reach into her soul to the point she owns the words.

Even though some of the story beats of “CODA” may sound familiar as she grows closer to her duet partner Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and is encouraged by Mr. Villalobos to consider college, Heder brilliantly strikes different chords than you’d expect when Ruby isn’t keen to lose her connection to her family, either to who they are or in perhaps leaving home, but comes to realize she might not be of any use to anyone if she doesn’t start placing her needs above theirs for once to be happy. It’s rare that crowdpleasers come as compassionate, provocative and razor sharp as this, with bits of Heder’s more madcap debut “Tallulah” bursting through to give just the right amount of edge to what gives way to a tearjerking finale. Then again, “CODA” illuminates the variety of things that go on inside anyone at any given time, making the notion that anyone would be defined by a single one especially silly.

“Coda” will screen once more at the Sundance Film Festival for a 48-window beginning on January 30th at 7 am MT.