January 28, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Virtual Sundance Reviews: “CODA” & “Censor”


A year ago, the idea of a “virtual film festival” would have seemed extremely far-fetched, but it’s become a regular practice in pandemic times.  The latest festival to take this path is Sundance, which in some ways is well-suited for this new normal, since it’s less built around starry galas than others.  (And there’s something to be said for not standing in long lines and waiting for packed shuttle buses in freezing weather.)  Of course, there’s no way to fully replace the communal experience of a film festival discovery, but these days, we take what we can.

CODA:  Sian Heder’s legitimately heartwarming, polished coming of age story is in many respects not unfamiliar.  Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a 17-year old in Gloucester, Massachusetts who balances high school with her work on the family fishing boat.  She loves and is sometimes mortified by her parents Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and Frank (Troy Kotsur) and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  She’s also a gifted singer, and in the course of the film will have to decide whether to leave home for a music academy in the big city or to stay for the sake of the struggling family business.  The difference is that Ruby is the only hearing member of her family (the title is the acronym for Children of Deaf Adults), and she’s spent much of her life as interpreter and liaison between her parents and the rest of the world, making her decision all the more complex  CODA may not be the stylistic tour de force that the recent Sound of Metal is, but it’s satisfying and moving all the same.  Heder has previously been a writer on Orange Is the New Black and Glow among others, and her script, based on a prior French film, is a superior piece of craft that establishes vivid characters and makes the effort to depict the beauty of American Sign Language as communication.  The cast, which also includes Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s cranky but supportive music teacher, is a lovely ensemble, with Jones the particular standout since she had to perform both vocally and in sign language, and showcase her singing as well.  CODA is somewhat mainstream by Sundance standards, and it seems like a natural buy for any of the major streaming services.

CENSOR:  The festival section most diminished by the virtual mode is Midnight, where so much of the attraction is sitting in a theater packed with audiences eager to scream.  (The “midnight” movies at Sundance are actually only shown at the Witching Hour for viewers on the East Coast.)  Even seen as a solitary experience, though, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor is a notable feature debut.  The film, written with Anthony Fletcher, sets its psychological horror in the fertile ground of a movie censorship office, where the employees spend their days watching all the footage too disturbing for general audiences.  Specifically the setting is the UK 1980s, when a subgenre of ultra-violent, low-budget VHS releases known as “video nasties” was a disreputable pop culture sensation.  As is often the case in these kinds of stories, our protagonist Enid (Niamh Algar) is already very much on the edge when we meet her.  A real-life murder has been publicly linked to a film she cleared for release (in events similar to those that led to A Clockwork Orange being unavailable in the UK for decades), and she’s been haunted since childhood by the disappearance and possibly worse of her younger sister.  Enid becomes increasingly obsessed with what she sees as the resemblance between those memories and a movie submitted to her office, and that leads her into pursuing the mysterious filmmaker behind the camera.  Spoiler:  things do not end well.  Bailey-Bond, who shot on actual film, does a masterful job with her design team of recreating the aesthetics of those lo-fi thrillers and their extravagant gory violence, while also making us feel the claustrophobia of the censorship office in Enid’s shaky real world.  Algar, best known for her role on HBO Max’s Raised By Wolves, holds the entire movie dead center from beginning to end, keeping us unsure whether to sympathize with Enid or fear her.  Censor may not quite hit the Cronenbergian sweet spot of horror and skewed psychology in its final act, but it’s a tremendously promising start for a skillful lover of genre.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."