Sundance smash CODA checks all the boxes you’d expect [Apple TV+ review]

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Emilia Jones and Eugenio Derbez in Coda
CODA delivers just what you'd expect from a "Sundance movie."
Photo: Apple TV+

CODA, this year’s Sundance Film Festival hit, is here to add some family-friendly laughs and musical feel-goodery to Apple TV+.

Will you enjoy this award-winning film about a teen with a deaf family? Very probably. Will you remember it? Very probably not. But not everything has to be Citizen Kane, right?

CODA review

Ruby Rossi (played by Emilia Jones) is your average high school loser. Her parents (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) embarrass her at every turn with their unselfconsciousness. Her brother (Daniel Durant) is becoming too cool for his own good and wants to date her best friend (Molly Beth Thomas).

Ruby can’t comfortably express herself in front of her peers because she’s been picked on for so long. And she can’t even begin to imagine following her dreams because a life without her family has never seemed like a realistic option. They’re all deaf but her and she’s become their interpreter in such a way that without her they’d founder.

What Ruby really wants to do is sing (the one thing her parents will never be able to appreciate). And it doesn’t matter so much until she meets her new choir teacher (Eugenio Derbez), who sees in her more than the shy girl with the embarrassingly affectionate family.

Suddenly coasting and forgetting her ambitions isn’t the option it once was. Perfect timing because her boat captain father gets fed up with kicking back to the local harbormaster (Armen Garo) and decides to go into business for himself. He can’t make great headway as a public figure trying to drum up support for his cause — or even as a competent fisherman — without his daughter to hear and speak for him.

You’re gonna hear me roar

CODA review: Emilia Jones in Coda
Emilia Jones portrays a teen with a deaf family in this year’s ultimate “Sundance movie.”
Photo: Apple TV+

There was a period of time in which the term “Sundance movie” conjured up a film so precisely calculated to elicit a certain set of emotions you could practically set your watch to the crying. The Sundance Film Festival was started in earnest in 1984 but the idea of the typical Sundance movie didn’t gain cultural traction until after 9/11.

Garden State, Tadpole, The Station Agent, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Rocket Science, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl all represent the same rush to the center that has also defined the narrative of American politics.

People without much coming together to enrich each other’s lives, shunning professional care in favor of cute and quirky rugged individualism. Death leads to a brief period of mourning and then the experience gets used in college-application essays. That kind of thing.

The strange fate of the ‘Sundance movie’

If the usual Sundance movie has tapered off as a phenomenon, partly that’s pushback. But it’s also partly because a movie with such a shallow set of preoccupations, and such a specific screenplay template, can really only be stretched so far. Audiences stopped clamoring to see movies like Whiplash and The Skeleton Twins. Plus, these sorts of films all started heading straight to streaming, so there wasn’t a built-in arthouse market for them.

Put The Overnight or Southside With You on Netflix and they’d have to duke it out with reality TV and whatever old blockbuster was re-released that week.

Imagine my surprise when I sat down for CODA, which swept Sundance’s top prizes this year, and was treated to an honest-to-god Sundance movie. Odd job for protagonists? Check (fishmongers). Alienating disability that separates protagonists from society? Check. Finding yourself through artistic self-expression after repressing one’s talents for years? Check.

Inoffensive, too-well-lit aesthetic, beautiful actors playing regular joes, small-town setting, tear-jerker moments timed tightly for each act, character has to choose between dreams and family, etc., etc., etc.? Check, please.

It could be worse

CODA’s worst crime is that it’s desperate to please and in no rush to take risks. The cast is lovable, the musical moments work, it’ll jerk your tears and give you chills.

It’s just … well, I wish it had grander ambition. After watching the Sundance movie grow to maturity (so to speak) and then fizzle out, I was ready for something else to replace it. This year alone, the festival premiered the arch and tempestuous likes of Faya Dayi (the best documentary I’ve seen this year), Sabaya, Eight for Silver, CensorA Glitch in the Matrix and All Light, Everywhere. It seems peculiar (or at least dull) to think that CODA was the only film from that slate in which Apple was interested.

Perfectly suited for Apple TV+

Not that it’s actually at all strange that Apple TV+ wanted this film. CODA is perfectly on brand. It’s got singing (boy does this network love a musical number), the triumph of the human spirit and liberal family values. It also features a scrappy, young female protagonist, and it’s about the great equalizer that is humanity.

I won’t lie and say I didn’t enjoy parts of it. Certainly Jones is a fantastic screen presence, making more of this role than she did her lead part on Locke & Key and delivering on the promise she displayed in the incredible and unheralded Incident in a Ghostland. Matlin and Kotsur prove effortlessly terrific in their under-written roles. And the seaside town in which the film transpires is gorgeously photographed.

All in all, CODA is exactly the kind of movie it seems to be based on its poster, trailer and logline. It just feels a little light, a little late, and it’s predictable to a fault. Since writer-director Sian Heder worked on Orange Is the New Black and Glow, I kind of expected a curveball at some point. However, it never arrived.

Watch CODA on Apple TV+

CODA premieres on August 13 on Apple TV+.

Rated: PG-13

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.