There is an excitement watching a movie tread in familiar tropes, yet at every turn elevating itself or turning away from the easy path. Sian Heder’s Coda, the opening night film of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, balances that highwire act quite well. Her coming of age tale is sensitive and deftly executed, delving into themes of familial connections and when those ties might need to be severed so that one can fully mature into their own person.

Working from her own script, Heder’s film follows Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) through her senior year in high school as she begins to pursue her vocal talents outside of a hobby, and into a full time passion that could lead her to leaving her small fishing village. The problem lies in the perfect conundrum at the center of the story. Ruby is the only hearing individual in her family of four. So, she isn’t just setting out on a road that could expand her passion into a career, but a path that puts her in direct conflict with her family.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Something about the conflict, even while being manufactured, feels organic to the sensitivity Heder brings to this family. It isn’t just that the family doesn’t want Ruby to sing, but they will never be able to experience her talent. How can those you love support you in something that they have no chance of being able to comprehend?

Her family is lower middle class, but the house is filled with love. Her parents, played by Tony Kotsur and the always welcome Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin, are lost at how to navigate this very foreign world to them. Her father, Frank, is a lifelong fisherman, and he fully intends Ruby and her brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), to maintain and eventually take over the family business. In many ways, they need Ruby. The Rossis exist in an inhospitable to landscape for the hearing impaired. Their small town doesn’t quite know what to do with the family. The fishing business can be harsh for Ruby’s brother and father who can’t fully negotiate the sales. Ruby has become the family interpreter, feeling the weight of her responsibilities she turns away from her family for the first time in pursuit of something that is uniquely her own.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

These two narratives naturally collide as Ruby inches closer to singing being a legitimate way out when she is aided by her choir teacher Mr. Villalobos, played by a very spirited Eugenio Derbez. The relationship is warm but contentious, while the film wisely never gives him much of a backstory choosing to focus on their relationship in the moment.

In addition to the direction, the film is brought vividly to life by the performances, particularly Jones in the central role and Kotsur as her father. It is an atypical father-daughter relationship in nearly every way, but there is a specificity to their relationship that is usually not captured on film.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Coda might have a subplot or two too many, but Heder’s portrait of a small town is lived in without feeling cloying. Every character seems to have a life beyond the edges of the screen. There’s nothing particularly original here and that’s okay. Every scene is executed with tact before culminating in an emotional ending that feels both bittersweet and purposefully open ended. When familiarity is this well-orchestrated, it can feel just as revelatory as the most audacious works of cinema and this walks that line beautifully.

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