Perhaps the most successful film festival to date when it comes to recreating that crucial sense of simultaneous discovery in a virtual format, this year’s online iteration of Sundance demonstrated early on that some traditions from Park City, Utah are hard to shake. The fevered bidding war over a perfectly nice little film is as central to the Sundance experience as chilblains and ruinously expensive hotel accommodation.
This year, the hot property is Siân Heder’s CODA (the title is an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults), an emphatically heartwarming coming-of-age drama about musically gifted high school student Ruby (Emilia Jones), who is the only hearing member of her family (her parents and older brother are deaf). After early interest from several of the deep-pocketed streaming platforms, it was Apple TV+ that sealed the deal for worldwide rights, setting a new Sundance record with a figure in the region of $25m.
Was it worth it? For Apple TV+ the figures clearly make sense. Unlike rivals Netflix and Amazon, Apple has yet to assert itself fully in terms of its cinema slate. CODA is exactly the kind of emotive, awards-friendly crowd-pleaser that could boost the platform’s profile and arrest the platform’s subscriber drop off.
The film itself is almost impossible to dislike. Bullied at school for her difference, Ruby is nevertheless secure in herself and in the love of her close-knit family. But as the only hearing child, it falls upon her to act as translator — a role which, she begins to realise, might come at the expense of her own dreams. Cue the music.
Certainly, it is formulaic and mired in a few too many stirring montages, but CODA rides a swell of goodwill from its terrific, big-hearted performances, its photogenic Gloucester, Massachusetts backdrop and its creatively profane use of American Sign Language.
Full report on Sundance Film Festival in FT Weekend on Saturday, festival.sundance.org