How 'CODA,' an 'instant classic' crowd-pleaser about a hearing child in a deaf family, stole Sundance and broke sales record

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read
Emilia Jones in 'CODA' (Sundance Film Festival)
Emilia Jones in CODA. (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

Even in a year like no other, with a Sundance Film Festival forced to go virtual and carry a leaner slate following months of production shut-downs that curbed its top-tier indie offerings, there have still been a handful of movies to make a major splash on the movie industry.

But no splash has ever been bigger than the one made this year by CODA, writer-director Sian Heder’s joyous, crowd-pleasing comedic drama (or dramatic comedy, take your pick) about the musically-inclined hearing teenage daughter (Emilia Jones) of deaf parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) in a New England fishing community. On Sunday, the film sold to Apple Studios for a Sundance record $25 million after a bidding war that also reportedly included Netflix and Amazon.

CODA’s hot streak continued Tuesday night when it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, the Director Award for Heder and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble at Sundance’s virtual awards ceremonya rare feat of complete domination at the festival.

A remake of the award-winning 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, CODA’s raves were instantaneous following its early-fest bow. “The film delivers an emotional knockout,” wrote Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “CODA is a radiant, deeply satisfying heartwarmer,” agreed Hollywood Reporter’s Jon Frosch. “It’s euphoric,” noted Collider’s Perri Nemiroff, while Decider’s Anna Menta hailed it “an instant classic.”

The film follows Ruby (Jones), a 17-year-old child of deaf adults (or “CODA”) in Gloucester, Mass. who wakes up before the crack of dawn each morning to assist her father (Kotsur) and adult brother Leo (Daniel Durant) on their family fishing boat. Ruby, though, also happens to be a supremely talented singer. And once she’s encouraged by an impassioned teacher (Eugenio Derbez) to chase her dreams and apply for Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music, her ambitions create a rift with her family, who relies on her for their translations.

The film’s appeal is multifold. It’s infectiously funny, mining comedy from your traditional John Hughesian teenage coming-of-age battles while finding original humor from its distinct domestic setup. In one scene, for instance, Ruby is mortified to hear her parents having loud sex while she has a boy (Sing Street breakout Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) over. They didn’t hear that she was home, nor can they hear how loud they’re being.

It offers a rare look into a deaf household, which the film makes no secret task of portraying as just like any other American home — though anyone but Ruby would probably agree that her working class parents, who have an anti-establishment edge and enjoy both weed and wine, not to mention helping Leo peruse Tinder, are hipper than most. We’ve long gotten the impression that Matlin, the groundbreaking deaf actress best known for her Oscar-winning role in Children of a Lesser God and television shows like The West Wing and Quantico, is a genuinely cool person. There’s something ingrained in her natural performance here, a rare film role, that drives that notion home. Kotsur, another deaf performer who carries an even weightier role here, is also fantastic, as is Durant.

Like Amazon’s critically acclaimed 2020 release Sound of Metal, CODA could go a long way in helping bolster the visibility of deaf or hard of hearing-themed stories.

'CODA' (Sundance Film Festival)
CODA (Photo: Sundance Film Festival)

The cruel irony of CODA’s premise drives its dramatic stakes: Ruby is an undeniably gifted singer, but her family members don’t have the ability to hear it, and thus are less naturally inclined to support her — especially with her help sorely needed in rebooting the family’s fledgling business. And then there’s the music, which anyone with an affinity for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell will appreciate. The phenomenal Jones, meanwhile, who at only 18 has already built up a strong resume that includes Doctor Who and Netflix’s Locke & Key, looks destined to break out in a big way, much like Winter’s Bone helped launched Jennifer Lawrence to stardom from Sundance in 2010. The British actress, who learned sign language for the part, has the effortless charm of a young Emma Stone, and the pipes of a young(er) Zendaya. She’s already a bona fide triple threat, including her singing and signing abilities.

And lest we forget Heder, who previously hit Sundance in 2015 with the Elliot Page-starring Tallulah. That film was well received, but with CODA Heder makes an emphatic statement on her storytelling prowess as both a writer and director.

CODA is a rich, beautiful, emotionally powerful story about a loving family’s deep bond. And then there’s the crowd-pleasing part.

As much as critics and festgoers have fawned over the film, many have also expressed regret that because of the pandemic, Heder and cast couldn’t enjoy what would’ve been a rapturous premiere likely capped with a standing ovation. The most natural Sundance comparison has to be Little Miss Sunshine (2006), another deeply charming family dramedy full of winning performances. Sunshine premiered at Sundance 15 years ago, was scooped up by Fox Searchlight for a hefty price tag at the time of $10 million, and went on to earn over $100 million at the global box office and four Academy Award nominations, winning two.

But with the sale to Apple — and streamers generally dominating film festival acquisitions these days — the film is likely to be viewed primarily in living rooms, much like it’s been “at” Sundance.

Its record price tag significantly bests last year’s sale of the Andy Samberg-Cristin Milioti time warp comedy Palm Springs, which sold to Hulu and Neon for $17,500,000.69 — a wink-wink 69 cents more than previous record holder, the later controversial The Birth of a Nation, which Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for in 2016.

There were some eyebrows raised over the steep price Apple paid for CODA, but as New York Times’s The Projectionist columnist Kyle Buchanan pointed out, that sum forked over wasn’t necessarily just for a film title: It also elevates the profile of Apple Studios as a film distributor, and could very likely give the streamer its very first heavyweight Oscars contender.

While Apple titles like Wolfwalkers and Boys State are likely to be in contention this year for Best Animated Film and Best Documentary, CODA could potentially be looking at multiple top-tier nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Matlin) and Best Supporting Actor (Kotsur).

The next question, of course, becomes: when? With eligibility extended two months until the end of February for this year’s Oscars due to the coronavirus pandemic, Apple could very well rush CODA into contention for April’s ceremony where it would potentially compete with Sundance 2020 titles like Minari and Promising Young Woman. Or it could hold a year — a debate that’s certainly unfolding within Apple Studios offices (virtually, anyway) as we speak.

One thing is for sure, though: The film already won Sundance 2021.

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