Tuesday, May 24, 2022

‘CODA’: A Deserving Best Picture Winner With Staying Power

In the aftermath of CODA‘s underdog win for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, there have been many to grouse that the indie darling didn’t deserve its win. A heartwarming story about growing up and finding yourself, CODA follows hearing teenager Ruby (a stunning Emilia Jones, who was snubbed for a Best Actress nomination) as she struggles to find her place within her majority Deaf family.

Ruby has been the biggest link between her family and the hearing community, a role that has become a burden to her and a source of anger and shame to her independent brother Leo (Daniel Durant). While Ruby begins to wonder what life would be like if she pursued her dreams of being a singer away from her small community, her parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) are forced to face the difficulties inherent in interacting with the hearing world without her.

Critics frequently dismiss CODA as a tearjerker destined to fade into obscurity once award season ends. They point towards fellow nominees Dune, Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, or West Side Story as examples of true cinema: sweeping epics directed by masters of the craft with performances by well known actors at the top of their game. How could CODA, they ask, made on a $10 million budget with a cast of mostly unknowns, possibly compete with the heavyweight nominees in its category? Is this yet another example of the Academy wooing casual moviegoers picking favorites from their couch rather than cinephiles who obsessively track every guild win and Gold Derby prediction?

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But CODA‘s win is not only a well deserved, worthy honor for a film that has become the little movie that could in this year’s awards season. It is a triumph for independent cinema and representation that also happens to be a complex and beautiful story. While the headlines focus on Apple TV+ acquiring its rights in a massive $25 million deal (a Sundance record), CODA is an indie by any definition. It was made for a steal compared to the other films nominated for Best Picture and arrived at Sundance without a distributor attached. It is also the only Grand Jury Prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival to win Best Picture, despite the fact that the legendary festival has had its films receive many nominations over the years. In a time where “indie” is a word used to describe any film that’s not a MCU superhero team up, CODA‘s win is a massive boost for truly independent artists.

It’s also a victory for those pushing for authentic disability representation in Hollywood, in this case the Deaf community specifically. While Marlee Matlin is well known for her Academy Award winning role in Children of a Lesser God, the rest of the cast of CODA is comprised of a wealth of Deaf theater talent who haven’t been given the chance to shine onscreen. Troy Kotsur made history as only the second Deaf actor to win at the Oscars after Matlin. Kotsur, Matlin, and Durant are alumni of Deaf West, the groundbreaking theater company that brought the critically acclaimed Spring Awakening revival to Broadway in 2015. CODA‘s success on the heels of Sound of Metal‘s nominations last year shows that the community of Deaf artists in Hollywood is a tremendously untapped resource.

It also shines a spotlight on the all too common practice of casting abled actors as disabled characters despite the plethora of disabled talent available. CODA is based on a French film that did not cast Deaf actors in the lead roles, a massive oversight that Heder set out to correct with CODA. Matlin and Heder reportedly had to fight with the film’s financial backers to cast Deaf talent for the other Deaf characters, a disgrace in this day and age. CODA proved beyond a doubt that when disabled actors are given the right resources and allowed to portray their community, they shine. Ideally, the increased visibility on the importance of casting authentically brought about by CODA will make it harder for abled actors to claim ignorance when taking on disabled roles for Oscar glory.

Those who dismiss CODA as shallow for daring to wear its heart on its sleeve ignore its commitment to depicting the messiness of a family on the verge of being torn apart. Durant’s portrayal of Leo’s stubborn refusal to rely on his sister and his anger at living in a world that refuses to make room for him while requiring him to play by its rules is devastating. Jackie’s guilty admission that she wished for Ruby to fail her newborn hearing test so she wouldn’t be estranged from her is raw. Its moments of pure joy, like the final shot of a smiling Ruby signing “I love you” out of her car window or her audition for Berklee, are earned because CODA doesn’t flinch at the difficult (or cringeworthy) parts of life.

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Sure, I appreciate a gorgeous shot or technically brilliant camera maneuver as much as the next person. But when the vast majority of people head to the movies or turn on their televisions to browse Netflix, they want to watch a film that works on a deeper level without constantly reminding them that this is an important movie by important people with Things To Say.

CODA may be a simple family drama on its surface, but without the bells and whistles of large scale musical numbers or space battles, it has to work harder to keep its audience invested. Ruby’s gorgeous rendition of “Both Sides Now” as she both sings and signs in ASL to her family watching from the balcony will bring you to tears not because you feel compelled to cry, but because you are with the characters and in their world completely.

So what if CODA is a “feel good” movie? I for one think we deserve to have a powerful celebration of life and love come out on top in the year 2022. As writer/director Sian Heder noted in an interview for Vanity Fair:

“I shouldn’t react to the term ‘crowd-pleaser’ because that is what you want, the crowd is the audience. If the audience is pleased watching your movie you should be so lucky. I don’t know. I guess in a way there’s always been this relationship when you’re talking about indie film: Does a movie need to be hard to watch? Does it need to challenge you or f**k with your head or leave you feeling nihilistic in order to mean something? Even though I came out of this indie world, I’ve always been drawn to hope and a certain warmth within a story that in a way might move more over into a commercial space.”

If telling an emotionally fulfilling story isn’t the goal of the art of cinema, I don’t know what that goal is. To pretend otherwise is taking a very narrow view of what the art of making movies has always been: to entertain, and ultimately to move, the audience. That metric is the only one that matters, and on that front CODA succeeds brilliantly.

CODA is available to stream now on Apple TV+.

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