March 8, 2021

Sundance Diary, Day 2: Heartwarming ‘CODA’ shines a spotlight on love and deafness

Two other movies feature magical realism — and teen depravity

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Festivals are great at bringing a variety of films together that offer drastically different but valuable ways of telling stories. On Day 2 of the Sundance Film Festival, “CODA” took a traditional coming-of-age tale and transformed it into something charming and fresh. “Son of Monarchs” mixed magical realism with documentary-style footage. And “John and the Hole” takes an avant-garde approach to a story of deep family dysfunction.

Of the three, “CODA” is most likely to resonate with most filmgoers. In fact just today, the film was sold to Apple for just over $25 million, a new Sundance acquisitions record.

Emilia Jones has a breakout role as Ruby Rossi, the only person in a family of four who isn’t deaf. Hence, she’s a CODA, a child of deaf adults.

She’s fiercely protective of her lusty family, fearing that folks in her Massachusetts fishing community will make fun of their lifestyle. She gets up at 3 every morning to help her father and older brother take out their boat for the morning catch. Then she heads to high school, where she has few friends.

Marlee Matlin plays Ruby’s mom, Jackie, and Troy Kutser plays Frank, her father. And the two of them have rowdy, loud sex often, much to Ruby’s dismay. They also bang around pots and pans and sometimes fart loudly. Daniel Durant plays her older brother Leo, and he likes to exchange dirty, insulting American Sign Language with his sister. She, meanwhile, acts as the interpreter for the family when it’s trying to sell its daily catch to hearing folks in town.



At school, Ruby joins choir after seeing a boy she likes sign up for the class. His name is Miles (Ferdio Walsh-Peelo), and he’s a talented singer. And as we learn early on, Ruby has quite a voice as well.

Their choir teacher, Mr. V (Eugenio Derbez), is what people in polite society call “high-strung.” But he recognizes Ruby’s talents and takes her on as personal project.

All of this might sound traditional, but director Sian Heder wields a deft touch, knowing when to insert laughs and when to take you to emotional depths you weren’t expecting. Fair warning: Bring tissue. Make that tissues. I went through several.

“Son of Monarchs,” directed by by Alexis Gambis, blends science with magical realism and focuses on a young Mexican scientist who works on the genetics of monarch butterflies. He uses cutting-edge technology to investigate the colors of the monarch’s wings. And this interest developed as a child, when he lived near the resting place for millions of the butterflies.

Tenoch Huerta Mejía stars as the scientist Mendel, who associates with fellow scientists who are deeply aware of the political goings-on at the border and worry about the environmental damage being wreaked by the building of Donald Trump’s wall.

Tenoch Huerta Mejía in "Son of Monarchs (Hijo de Monarcas)," one of five films that Austin Film Society will screen live as part of its collaboration. with the Sundance Film Festival
Tenoch Huerta Mejía in “Son of Monarchs (Hijo de Monarcas),” one of five films that Austin Film Society will screen live at a drive-in as part of its collaboration with the Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Alexia Rassmusen plays Sarah, Mendel’s girlfriend, who’s a paralegal working on cases to help the Dreamers achieve citizenship. She’s also taking trapeze lessons, an obvious but interesting metaphor for a butterfly.

Mendel’s life in New York, however, is interrupted by the death of his grandmother. So he returns for her funeral and starts flashing back to the days when he and his older brother would play in fields of butterflies.

Those scenes are stunning and gorgeous, but they also emphasize the fragility of the ecosystem, since mining is disrupting some of the lands near the monarch refuge.

Gambis is working from a script that has little action but lots of memories. And he mixes scenes of magical realism with scientific discovery, an artistic attempt to show that the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s quite interesting, but also very much an arthouse affair.

It was the opening night film at the Austin Film Society’s Drive-in screenings for the local Sundance Film Festival, being held at Pioneer Farms east of Interstate 35. For more information about local Sundance screenings, visit austinfilm.org/2021-sundance-film-festival

The third film, “John and the Hole,” will be divisive and controversial. But it’s reminiscent of the deadpan depravity of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose “Dogtooth” and “The Favourite” stunned moviegoers.

Visual artist Pascual Sisto makes his directorial debut with the story of a deeply disturbed 13-year-old boy who discovers a large bunker-style hole on the grounds of his family’s estate. Played by Charlie Shotwell of “Captain Fantastic,” John drugs his mother, father and sister and dumps them in the hole, where he holds them captive.

Charlie Shotwell appears in John and the Hole by Pascual Sisto, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Paul Özgür.
Charlie Shotwell appears in John and the Hole by Pascual Sisto, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Paul Özgür.

Michael C. Hall, who rose to fame playing the psychopath Dexter on TV, is John’s father, while Jennifer Ehle plays his flustered mother who wonders where she went wrong in raising her sinister son. Taissa Farmiga plays John’s teen sister. And they respond to being stuck in the hole in different ways, especially as the days drag on and their living conditions become more squalid.

John, meanwhile, thinks that he will enjoy life as the king of his family’s substantial home. And it appears that he thinks, in a creepy sort of way, that this will help speed his transition to adulthood. As we’ve seen in other creepy arthouse movies, however, gorgeous estates, no matter how exclusive, can start to fall apart when there’s no adult around.

All of this is carefully handled by the director, whose precise staging is a marvel to behold. But “John and the Hole” will most likely appeal to what’s known in Austin as the Fantastic Fest crowd. And that’s not a putdown.

The Sundance Film Festival continues through Feb. 3. For more information, visit austinfilm.org/2021-sundance-film-festival


Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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