Good coming-of-age stories realize why it’s trivial to focus too much on their central protagonists. It takes a truly empathetic approach on a filmmaker’s part to never project condescension onto the yearnings and hopes of their characters. That’s precisely what Sian Heder brings to the table in CODA, where she reflects the joyousness of life with a bordering poignancy through the gaze and youthful glee of a teenager, and how the world around imposes on the struggles of coming on terms with her family and aspirations.
In the wake of the rivalry between streaming giants, the Academy Award for Best Picture this year went to CODA, making it the first such trophy for any streaming company. The story revolves around the Rossi family, who make a modest living gathering haddock and other species in the waters of Massachusetts, though prices are continually decreasing. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the youngest of them, still in high school and worried about electives, homework, and boys. Those are pretty low stakes for an Academy Award winning film, right? But not for a teenager concerned about being bullied, as her family – father Frank (Troy Kotsur, who won the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant) – are all deaf, which means, as the only speaking one of the bunch, she absorbs the brunt of all the embarrassment, while also handling virtually all of the translating going on between friends and associates.
The title of the film itself is an acronym: Child of Deaf Adult. CODA has all the predictable beats you’ve seen before. You know how these family interactions go, you just don’t usually see them being thrown around in ASL. We see Ruby constantly at odds with her family after coming across her passion for music. It’s about her trying to reconcile these two worlds she’s found herself in, while also trying to find her own voice. Emilia Jones is truly exceptional here and is a young talent people need to look out for. It’s the sort of performance that’s been handled so effortlessly, that it almost looks like an easy task. But here we have a British actress, acting in an American accent after willingly taking up the task of learning ASL weeks prior to the shoot. There’s a constant push and pull between the two siblings – Ruby and Leo; their dynamic here isn’t a conventional sibling relationship. Leo isn’t bogged down by his condition; he’s got the same aspirations and expectations from the world around as his classmates.
Troy Kotsur gets a standout scene outside the family’s house late at night with Ruby standing next to the truck, one that’s bound to make anyone bawl their eyes out. Individually, it’s a scene staged extremely well, but it takes on a greater meaning in how it’s structured within the screenplay. During her on stage performance, all sound is drained out from the film as Ruby sings in front of her nearest and dearest, making us perceive her act from the point of view of the non-hearing father. CODA finds its beating heart in the shared language of its characters, and is a testament to how emotions can supersede everything words could never convey.
Marlee Matlin plays an overly cautious mother coming to value her daughter’s true potential, without letting the situation they’re in cloud her judgment. She struggles in trying to control her subjective fears of having to go through repeated embarrassments, which she reflects on her daughter. The film succeeds in its layered exploration of these very internal family dynamics through its holistic and linguistic approach. Sian Heder’s storytelling has a loving eye for detail and an intuitive ear for dialogue which reverberates even between the lines.
Ruby’s love interest in the film is Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a guy whose parents are never as supportive about him pursuing a career in singing. This provides a nice contrast to Ruby’s affectionate parents, who empathise with her daughter’s dream even when they know they can’t ever perceive it. Similarly, there’s a running gag in CODA about Ruby’s parents being overly sexually active, but it’s never played cheaply; it’s a way to establish a common ground between the audience and the deaf characters in the film.
The last two years have been extremely mentally taxing for people across the world, to say the least. We find ourselves not just in the middle of a pandemic (and now in a major Europe-centered conflict), but in the middle of dialectical grumbling where we’re bombarded with a constant influx of information from all the sides. Cinephiles have always, for the most part, underestimated the value of a light-hearted coming-of-age drama could provide, especially during such a time. The win for CODA poses an interesting question: can only austere and thematically complex films garner respect and attention from the Academy and other award voters? What role does a heartwarming drama play then?
Having said that, the Best Picture win for CODA isn’t just symbolic; the film was simultaneously released in theaters and on Apple TV+ in August of 2021. The film’s theatrical debut was initially limited to about 40 theaters in major markets, with additional screenings added in the following weeks. The issue of releasing new films simultaneously on streaming and in theaters came to a head when Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson filed a lawsuit against Sony over the film’s hybrid release. In that sense, the streaming platform’s win here marks a key shift in the film culture overall, while also posing other equally important questions of where does the line separating arthouse and mainstream cinema begin and end.
CODA won all of its races at both the Screen Actors Guild Awards (especially the one for best ensemble, the SAG equivalent of best picture) and PGA Awards (Best Picture). Netflix’s The Power of the Dog posed the most obvious threat to Apple’s best-picture odds this year, for the first time in history making it a streamer vs. streamer race. Is CODA the quintessential Oscar movie of the decade? It’s a welcomed social experiment (the film stars deaf actors) that’s earnest enough in its approach to make you root for its characters. Even when most conflicts in the film are quickly resolved, it doesn’t render those emotions any less effective. It’s a pleasantly familiar coming-of-age tale that’s been handled sensitively enough (given the subject matter), that it speaks universally, and supremely. That’s something the world could use right now.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.