The Screen Scene: Sundance Film Festival 2021, Part 2

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Last time on The Screen Scene, I took a look at two Sundance Film Festival premieres that have now hit theaters.  In this one, I’m turning my attention to the two most commercial films that I saw at Sundance this year, the films that stood to be big indie box office hits if only there was still a healthy box office. 

The first film, CODA, will now be bypassing theaters altogether, selling to Apple TV+ for a Sundance record $ 25 million.  The title is an abbreviation for Child of Deaf Adults.  In the film, that child is Ruby played by talented singer-actress Emilia Jones.  Ruby is a high school senior who wants to go to collage to pursue her dreams of being a professional singer. 

However, Ruby is also the only hearing member of her deaf family.  She helps out with the family fishing business and serves as the translator for her parents and her brother.  She is the bridge between her deaf household and a hearing world.  Can Ruby leave her family to pursue her dreams?  How will her family’s business cope in her absence?

The performances are uniformly stellar.  CODA makes the wise decision to cast all deaf actors as Ruby’s family.  Veteran actress Marlee Matlin plays Ruby’s mother, and Troy Kotsur steals every scene he’s in as Ruby’s father.  The moment where he asks his daughter to sing for him and the way he feels her vocalizations instead of hearing them brought tears to my eyes.

The performances and the screenplay portray the deaf characters as real people with problems and dreams same as the rest of us.  So often when a deaf character is central to a narrative, the focus of the film becomes the character’s struggle with his or her deafness.  In CODA, life-long deafness is portrayed more accurately as a logistical problem that needs troubleshooting, not a disability that renders the deaf person’s life unlivable.

CODA goes so far as to suggest that Ruby is a crutch for her family, that she’s an enabler of sorts whom they rely upon to get through life more easily.  When her mother refers to the days when Ruby was a baby, her father responds that “Ruby was never a baby.”  As the hearing child in a deaf family, she was born with adult-like responsibilities.

The use of American Sign Language is a visceral experience unlike most any other movie I’ve ever seen.  Hands audibly clap together.  Fingers strike arms.  You can literally hear the emotion behind the motions.  The characters’ emotions are not watered down into a silent individual in the corner of a television screen trying to communicate without words.

CODA deserves to be the indie hit of 2021.  You will laugh.  You will definitely cry.  I hope this beautiful film finds its audience when it hits Apple TV+ later this year.

In Together Together, Ed Helms (The Office, The Hangover films) plays Matt, a man who hears his biological clock ticking and decides to have a baby through surrogacy.  Anna (played by the amazing Patti Harrison) answers his call, and the two embark on a path to have Matt’s baby. 

It sounds like the formula for the perfect rom-com: a “meet cute” or maybe a “meet unusual” to falling in love and having a child together.  STOP!! The title itself tells you they are not together together, and that’s the point of the film, narratively and thematically.  Together Together is a beautiful story of platonic male-female friendship between a man who feels the need to a be a parent and the young woman who is providing him with that gift.      

The film has one of those whip-smart screenplays that avoids just about every story-telling pitfall you can imagine spinning out of this premise.  The humor is clever, and the brief moments of drama are never overwrought or manipulative.  It sustains a perfect tone throughout.

The two stars play off each other beautifully.  Patti Harrison plays Anna as a woman with hidden layers that are revealed as the film unfolds.  She has sadness and hardship in her past and hopes that by helping Matt she can shake loose the emotional ties that bind her.  Ed Helms plays his usual Everyman role, but he avoids the goofy physical humor that often accompanies his performances.  Matt is just a guy who never quite found the right woman and is afraid of growing old alone.

Together Together is a must-see film.  Its release strategy isn’t known yet.  Tune into The Screen Scene each week, and I’ll keep you updated as it hits theaters and streaming services later this year.

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