Reel Dad: Sundance opens film festival with 'CODA'

Each year, the Sundance Film Festival provides a platform for independent movies to be seen, acquired for distribution and identified as potential candidates for awards.

Because of COVID-19, this year’s edition of the annual gathering in Park City, Utah features a series of virtual premieres and screenings in addition to limited in-person showings. And, with this change, the 2021 collection of compelling films can be seen from the convenience and safety of home.

“CODA,” a fresh and insightful story about a family dealing with unique challenges, opens this year’s event with heartfelt lessons of what it takes to keep people together when so much can tear us apart. This meaningful exploration into the layers of disability and disappointment, fear and fairness, opportunity and obstacles that can define family reminds us that people we hold closest to our hearts can, at times, be the ones most likely to break them. And, together, we can recover.

The film invites us to meet the Rossi family, a hard-working clan of people who fish the waters off the coast of New England. They encounter daily challenges in their work - buyers who don’t want to pay the price for the fish, boat engines that aren’t in the mood to cooperate, inspectors who arrive at the least convenient times - which they handle with the confidence and calm of people who know what they do every day. What makes this family’s journey their own, however, is that only one of the four in the family can speak and hear. The parents and one child are deaf, with a hearing 17-year-old daughter, Ruby, the CODA, “child of deaf adults.” And, as Ruby begins to discover her voice as a singer, the family must adjust to the needs and ambitions of a child who wants more for her life.

From the first moments, moviemaker Sian Heder makes us want to know these people, trust their caring for each other, and believe in how they love and support. Never during the 111 minutes of the film do we let ourselves get frustrated with parents who object or siblings who disagree; Heder is too authentic a filmmaker to resort to Hollywood histrionics. Instead, in the tradition of such movie classics as “Ordinary People” and “Running on Empty,” she lets the love people share set the boundaries for how and what they express. And she inspires her cast to inhabit their characters with as much care as the people they play bring to each family gathering.

Among the strong performances, “CODA” may bring the most attention to Emilia Jones who delivers that kind of breakthrough performance that can make headlines at Sundance, a magical combination of acting ability and emotional authenticity. The actress shades Ruby in a range of colors to help us better understand the challenge a CODA can face as she tries to navigate a world that doesn’t always recognize the magic she can experience.

Thank you, Sundance, for adjusting your festival for the moment, and opening this year’s festivities with just the right film for this time.

“CODA” runs 1 hour and 51 minutes and is not yet rated. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to festival.sundance.org .

Summary: CODA

Content: High. A family filled with love and caring finds ways to navigate a challenging world filled opportunity and obstacles.

Entertainment: High. As serious as this content may sound, Sian Heder's look at this family overwhelms with joy.

Message: High. Any family can learn from how this family faces the challenges that can come with each day.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share, as a family, a film that articulates such meaningful lessons about family is always relevant.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, talk about the ways families can support each other through all times.