It’s been an up-and-down recent history for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Starting in 2017, we’ve seen the following Best Picture winners, in order: Moonlight (only after one of the most confusing, chaotic, and memorable ends to an award show ever), The Shape of Water (a movie, we remind you, about a mute woman falling in love with a sea monster), Green Book (we’re with Spike Lee on this one), Parasite (an absolute masterpiece and a victory for film lovers everywhere), and Nomadland (a solid movie that doesn’t seem to have made much of a lasting impact culturally, if we’re being honest).
Despite many major, high-profile contenders—a sci-fi-epic in Dune, one of Steven Spielberg’s best in West Side Story, Jane Campion’s bold and sweeping The Power of the Dog, just to name a few—the top prize of 2022 went to a movie called CODA. CODA, which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” has been circling around the film world for more than a year now, ever since debuting at Sundance 2021 and selling to Apple TV+ for a record-setting $25 million.
While CODA claiming Best Picture may seem like a shock that came out of nowhere, the movie (which holds a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes) has been slowly-but-surely building buzz since its August 2021 release.
The movie centers on Ruby Rossi (Locke and Key star Emilia Jones), a shy high school senior and the film’s titular CODA. She lives with her family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they all work on her family’s fishing boat; the entire town’s economy is built around fishing and selling catches. Ruby’s family, including her parents, Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) and brother, Leo (Daniel Durant), are all deaf, and Ruby helps as their interpreter.
But what makes CODA worth your time isn’t necessarily being driven by the plot—a plot which is fairly predictable and that you’ve likely seen before. What makes CODA worth your time is the way the story, in casting actors who are actually deaf in the roles, brings a humanity to characters who in past contexts may not have been given the same dimensionality. The Rossi family aren’t all cutouts; the parents and the children all have their own different personality types, wants, desires, needs, and the movie makes sure this point isn’t beat over your head, but rather done in a way that feels organic and true to the story being told and presented.
Particularly impressive in CODA is Kotsur, who just won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Frank (and in turn brought us the best moment in an otherwise chaotic night). Kotsur manages to bring not only the warmth and humanity that characters in these sorts of coming-of-age stories generally do, but he added a degree of vulgarity that works in a charming way (there’s a running joke throughout the film that he and Matlin can’t keep their hands off each other).
But perhaps what’s best about his performance (and the way that writer/director Sian Heder wrote the character) is that he’s not a perfect Dad who 100% gets everything all at once; he’s got his own frustrations and his own wants and needs that don’t necessarily line up with Ruby’s. But seeing those disconnects, and how people can come together and grow to move past them is what makes the sweet moments all the more sweeter.
There’s no debate that CODA isn’t the big movie that West Side Story or Dune or The Power of the Dog are. And it’s not trying to be. CODA is shot in gloomy Massachusetts, and was never going to compete with the scale of something like Dune. And that’s OK. Is it the best movie of the year? That’s up for each viewer to decide. Are there politics at play when the Best Picture Oscar is being voted on? Of course! But CODA is a nice movie—and sometimes, that’s good enough for Oscar.
Is CODA based on a true story?
CODA is not directly based on a true story; still, it’s not uncommon for hearing children to be born to deaf parents, as research has shown that over 90% of children of deaf people are not affected by deafness or other hearing issues. So while this story isn’t based on reality, stories like this, or with parts of this, are.
Sara Novic, a deaf writer, brought note to some of the more common moments of teenage life that aren’t often seen through the Deaf/CODA lens—particularly a talk about sex that comes through American Sign Language. “I liked that these characters were sexual beings–deaf and disabled people are often neutered or virginal in movies and books, and that’s extremely boring and inaccurate,” she told USA Today.
So, it's for plot reasons. I get that. But it sends a *terrible* message to hearing people, both in terms of their communication responsibilities ("so it's fine if I just make their kid interpret instead of getting a pro") and in terms of our competence, as deaf people. 8/— Jenna Beacom, M.Ed (@jfbeacom) August 13, 2021
While there was plenty of praise—particularly on the Rossi family being not only adept and capable within their community but also in many ways even more capable than their hearing counterparts—certain aspects of the movie did also come under some fire. One example? The movie depicts Ruby constantly as her parents’ interpreter, even in settings like a court hearing, when the Americans with Disabilities Act would mean that a professional interpreter would be required. Jenna Beacom, who is a sensitivity reader and also a deaf parent of a singer herself, criticized the movie’s depiction of the Deaf experience, and the insinuation “that being deaf means that you can’t enjoy music, or understand anyone else’s enjoyment.”
In actuality, CODA is based on a French film called La Famille Bélier, which came out in 2014; Heder won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for her adaptation.
How to watch CODA right now:
CODA is an Apple TV+ exclusive, which means the only way you can watch is by subscribing to Apple’s streaming service. CODA is the first Best Picture Winner to come from a streaming service, but if you sign up for Apple TV+ there are actually a deceptive amount of great shows to check out additionally. We’ll go ahead and recommend Ted Lasso, Severance, and Mythic Quest as just a few to start with.
This article was first published on Men’s Health US.