“CODA” and “Marvelous and the Black Hole” Are Stand-Out Coming-of-Age Features

Sundance 2021: “CODA” and “Marvelous and the Black Hole” Are Stand-Out Coming-of-Age Features

This is the final in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other Sundance 2021 reviews here.


Sundance 2021: “CODA” and “Marvelous and the Black Hole” Are Stand-Out Coming-of-Age Features
Still from CODA. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

CODA is an elegant and vibrant coming of age story highlighting issues of class, disability and accessibility.

Directed by Siân Heder. This film was sold to Apple TV+ for a record-breaking $25 million.

Certainly the breakout hit at Sundance this year, CODA swept the festival’s awards show, receiving the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Feature, the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature, the Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature, and a Special Jury Award for Best Ensemble Cast (Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant and Marlee Matlin).

It’s no shock, then, that CODA is a lucid, captivating and heartwarming coming-of-age film, made even more compelling because director Siân Heder takes the edict “representation matters” to heart.

Seventeen-year-old Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of her family and hence a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), has been translating for her mother (Marlee Matlin), father (Tory Kotsur) and older brother (Daniel Durant) most of her life. Fluent in ASL and happy to help her family, Ruby also labors through a complex morass of indebtedness and self-doubt in her day-to-day life. She wakes before sunrise to help her father and brother on their fishing rig, where maritime safety regulations require they have a hearing crew member. Then she drags herself to school where she struggles through her classes—shy, exhausted and lacking motivation.

When Ruby joins the school choir on a whim and proves to be an exceptional singer, her music teacher (Eugenio Derbez) takes her under his wing determined to foster her nascent talent. It’s here where the threads of Ruby’s life begin to tangle. As she comes out of her shell at school and in her social life, she also beings to chafe against the expectations placed on her by her parents, Jackie and Frank.

Frank worries Ruby’s burgeoning interest in college will take her away from the family fishing business, where he depends on her to maintain their scant livelihood; Jackie at first misinterprets Ruby’s passion for singing as a teenage rebellion against her Deaf family. Only Ruby’s brother, Leo, with whom she has a typical push-pull sibling bond—part rivalry, part camaraderie—wishes Ruby would take a step back from the family and forge her own path so he, in turn, could step in.

While it’s not terribly difficult to see where the divergent strands of CODA’s plot will come together in the end, the film is an elegant and vibrant coming of age story highlighting issues of class, disability and accessibility. But my favorite part of the film was its cast, particularly Ruby’s family, whose dynamic is so believable it feels like they might live just down the street. Matlin and Kotsur are a delight on screen together, their characters’ love for each other and their children resonating clearly in their expressive repartee.

It’s the energy and authenticity of the characters and the skill of the acting that makes CODA such a strong film. While Jones had to learn ASL to play the part of Ruby, all the Deaf characters are played by Deaf actors. And with Heder’s talented direction and her clever script leading the way, CODA marks an important step in the right direction for diversity and inclusion in film: a crowd-pleaser that faithfully and respectfully represents a marginalized community often lacking in representation.

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Marvelous and the Black Hole

Sundance 2021: “CODA” and “Marvelous and the Black Hole” Are Stand-Out Coming-of-Age Features
Still from Marvelous and the Black Hole. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Directed by Kate Tsang. Financed in part through the AT&T and Tribeca Film Festival Untold Stories filmmaker program, this film doesn’t yet have distribution.

Another coming-of-age film, but one more likely to fly under the radar, Marvelous and the Black Hole follows the adventures of a recalcitrant Chinese American teenager, Sammy (Miya Cech). The premise of the film is based on a somewhat common trope: Sammy becomes angry and sullen following the death of her mother, her rebellion coming to a head just as her father contemplates getting remarried. (Oddly, the premise echoes that of the Netflix animated feature Over the Moon (2020), down to the inclusion of the legend of the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e, although the films ultimately head in markedly different directions.)

Failing out of school, prone to fits of petty vandalism, and constantly at odds with her father and sister, Sammy is in danger of being sent away to a reform summer camp when she meets a quirky magician, Margot (Rhea Perlman). Margot also suffered a loss as a child and found a way to channel her grief into magic and performance.

After a rough start, Margot and Sammy form an unlikely bond, and Sammy begins to learn magic, finally finding an outlet for her rage and sadness. While the film treads tricky ground portraying a clandestine friendship between a teen girl and a middle-aged woman, Tsang’s clever script and thoughtful direction address potential concerns surrounding the relationship head-on.

Marvelous and the Black Hole manages to be both playful and meditative by turns, navigating Sammy’s deep and real grief while recognizing that sometimes the ways teenagers express themselves is simultaneously unproductive and wholly outside their control. In meeting Margot, Sammy begins to find her way back to herself—just not in a way she ever though she would.  

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.