CODA: Sian Heder’s Intimate Tale of a Deaf Community–Sundance Film Fest 2021 (Premiere)

Coda, director Sian Heder’s follow-up to her 2016 Sundance Fest feature Tallulah, is a well-intentioned, highly enjoyable, if also narratively conventional, serio-comedy about the deaf subculture.
Heder’s tale–a remake of Éric Lartigau‘s 2014 French film “La famille Bélier”–depicts a girl, about 17, who’s the only hearing person in a deaf family.  The movie centers on the tough choice she is facing between pursuing her passion for music and helping her parents’ business.


A still from CODA by Siân

A drama about a teenage girl who is the only hearing person in her family, CODA has sparked an intense bidding war after a rapturous debut at this year’s Sundance Film Fest.

The likable and talented British actress Emilia Jones plays Ruby Rossi, a Coda (acronym for a child of deaf parents), who helps her family fishing enterprise while struggling to stay ahead at high school.

Her mother (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin), father (Troy Kotsur), and brother (Daniel Durant) rely on her translations, which puts burden on her.  For example, she goes at length to make her parents understand an awkward medical diagnosis.

However, when Ruby joins the school choir, which fulfils her passion for singing, the experience excites her music teacher but irritates her family.

The working-class Gloucester, MA setting (the director grew up in Cambridge) helps to contextualize the otherwise familiar tale, lending it a more gritty and realistic tone.

The movie follows all the expected steps (and stops) on its way toward a c0ntrived happy ending of a school concert and an audition.

It may be a coincidence that CODA follows the release of another (and better) film about the deaf community, Sound of Metal, which boasts a towering performance from Riz Ahmed.

Earnest and old-fashioned, CODA was obviously made with a broad, crowd-pleasing intent, and at times the storytelling feels too comfortable and too safe for its own good, though its heart is always in the right place.

Sparking a bidding war, the movie likely will get acquired this weekend–negotiations are ongoing with multiple parties expressing interest.


CODA - Sundance Film Festival - Publicity - H 2021
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Born on June 23, 1977 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Heder is a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

Heder moved to Hollywood to become an actress and screenwriter while working for a nanny agency, an experience that inspired her first short film.

In 2005, the script for Mother was chosen to be awarded a fellowship for the American Film Institute’s DWW (Directing Workshop for Women). Mother won the Grand Jury Award for “Best Narrative Short” at the Florida Film Fest, and also received honors at the Cinéfondation Competition of the Cannes Fest.

In 2010 Heder won a Peabody Award, along with her fellow writers, for her work on the TV series, “Men of a Certain Age.”

In 2011 she wrote and directed a short comedy, Dog Eat Dog (A Short Tale) starring Zachary Quinto to raise awareness for pet adoption.

She wrote for the first three seasons of the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black.

In 2015, Heder directed Tallulah, starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney, which premiered at Sundance and was acquired by Netflix for worldwide rights to stream.

Movie in Silent Language

Sian Heder recalls: “You make movies and you come together and you bond and then move on, but this — it did feel like we were a family.”

The Rossis operate a fishing business in Gloucester, Mass., and have relied on Ruby to communicate with the rest of the world. Marlee Maltin and Troy Kotsur play her working-class parents who can’t keep their hands off of each other, Jackie and Frank, respectively, and Daniel Durant plays her older brother Leo. Eugenio Derbez rounds out the cast as Mr. Villalobos, Ruby’s strict but warm choir teacher who encourages her to apply to the Berklee School of Music.

They were all so patient and I just fell in love with the language and with the actors; I’ve never felt so close to people ever in my life. It was such an incredible experience for me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Heder also learned ASL to understand the world she was diving into and to better communicate with Matlin, Kotsur and Durant.

While there were interpreters on set, Heder’s goal was to achieve “direct connection” with her actors. “We all kind of brainstormed after the first day, and I said, ‘Is it OK if I come up and I give you notes directly? My signing might be all over the place and terrible, but I’m going to do my best, and everybody was really game for that.

It was really helpful for us to forge that strong connection and trust between us, and we had wonderful interpreters who there to jump in and help, when we needed them.”


Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Vendome Pictures, Pathé Films, Picture Perfect Federation
Cast: Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Daniel Durant, Eugenio Derbez, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth
Writer-director: Sian Heder
Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi, Patrick Wachsberger
Executive producer: Sarah Borch-Jacobson
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: Diane Lederman
Costume designer: Brenda Abbandandolo
Editor: Geraud Brisson
Composer: Marius De Vries
Casting: Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Lisa Zagoria
Sales: ICM Partners, CAA

Running time: 111 minutes