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Sundance Hit 'CODA' Is A Warm Coming-Of-Age Romance About The Child Of Deaf Parents


The opening film at this year's Sundance Film Festival didn't just win awards, including the Grand Jury Prize; it also won the highest purchase price in Sundance history - $25 million - and that's in the middle of the pandemic. The film is a family drama - it's called "CODA" - that critic Bob Mondello says has a heart as big as the great outdoors it starts in.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: A fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, Ruby, up since 3 a.m., as she is every day, reeling in the catch with her dad and her brother before heading out to high school. The radio's blasting, but only Ruby sings along.


EMILIA JONES: (As Ruby, singing) And I just want to tell you right now.

MONDELLO: And that's 'cause she's the only hearing person in her family. The film's title, "CODA," stands for Child of Deaf Adults, a circumstance that set Ruby apart as long as she can remember. It embarrassed her as a kid when her folks would show up at school, rap music blasting from their pickup because that way they could feel the bass. And it embarrasses her still when she has to translate for her parents during a trip to the doctor about a problem they have down there.


JASON PUGATCH: (As Doctor) I'll give you an antifungal cream. You both have to keep the area dry and avoid sex for two weeks.

MONDELLO: Ruby signs this as, you can never have sex again. Her folks look at the doctor. Then Ruby relents - for two weeks - and at that they both erupt. Two weeks? We can't do it, they sign. Later at dinner, Ruby is annoyed that her playing music at the table is considered rude, but Tinder is OK - helping her brother sift through potential girlfriends - because her mom signs, we can do that together.

Now, may I just say we're maybe nine minutes into this movie and already "CODA" is into smarter, more genuine and more amusing territory than most coming-of-age romances, which is what it's about to become. And it's just getting started. It's a new school year and time to sign up for electives. Miles, a guy Ruby has a crush on, has just signed up for choir. So this child of deaf parents opts for...


JONES: (As Ruby) Choir.

MONDELLO: Then gets to class, and it plays on all her insecurities.


JONES: (As Ruby) Other kids make me nervous. I talked funny when I first started school.

MONDELLO: The teacher's solution - he teams her with her crush for the fall concert.


EUGENIO DERBEZ: (As Bernardo Villalobos) I need a duet - "You're All I Need To Get By." You know?

MONDELLO: Now you know where this is headed, though there are some unique complications. Ruby's mom is less than enthusiastic to discover Ruby's joined the choir. If I was blind, she signs, would you want to paint? And when Ruby brings Miles home to practice their duet...


EMILIA JONES AND FERDIA WALSH-PEELO: (As Ruby and Miles, singing) ...Good for you and inspire you...

MONDELLO: ...And they're interrupted by unambiguous sounds from mom and dad's bedroom.


FERDIA WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) Is that your mom?

MONDELLO: ...It leads to the world's most awkward parent-teen sit-down. Dad decides this is the moment for a talk about using protection. And to Ruby's mortification, nothing could be clearer than his signed suggestions to Miles.


WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) Maybe I should go?

MONDELLO: Director Sian Heder cast all of Ruby's family members with actors who are deaf, a smart improvement on a French version of the story that did not do that. Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar in "Children Of A Lesser God," is a complicated, funny mom. Troy Kotsur's wonderfully profane dad and Daniel Durant's hot-tempered, hot-blooded and just plain hot older brother are also terrific. That they're depicted as both loving and sexually active should probably feel like some kind of landmark, considering how timid Hollywood usually is depicting people who are deaf. But it comes across as just natural in the film, as does Miles' reaction when Ruby gets mad that he told a friend about his encounter with her folks.


WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) Look; I know it's not an excuse, but it sucks in my house right now. And you've got this, like, perfect life. And...

JONES: (As Ruby) What?

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) Your parents are madly in love. They can't keep their hands off each other. And your house is...

JONES: (As Ruby) Disgusting.

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) It's a home. And you all work together and laugh. And my family's not like that.

JONES: (As Ruby) You have no idea what it's like to hear people laugh at your family...

WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles) You're right. I don't.

JONES: (As Ruby) And have to protect them 'cause they can't hear it, but I can.

MONDELLO: Emilia Jones, who studied both vocals and American Sign Language to play Ruby, is as persuasive as the story around her in "CODA," a film that offers a unique take on a familiar coming-of-age tune, playing it with enough warmth and generosity that it feels as if you're hearing it for the first time.


WALSH-PEELO: (As Miles, singing) You are my destiny.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.


JONES: (As Ruby, singing) With my arms open wide, I threw away my pride. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.