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How CODA managed to pull out a Best Picture win

The family drama is a hugely unlikely Best Picture winner. But it sort of makes sense.

A teenage girl stands on stage, signing “love.”
Emilia Jones in CODA.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Until a couple weeks ago, nobody really seemed to think Sian Heder’s film CODA, the little family drama that could, would pull out any Oscar wins, let alone Best Picture. (I sure didn’t.)

And why would they? With a modest $10 million budget, it premiered at a fully virtual Sundance Film Festival, with all festivalgoers sitting at home on their couches. That happened 14 months before these Oscars, which is an extraordinarily long time for a movie to keep picking up steam. (There’s been an entire other Oscars since then.) No Sundance premiere has ever won Best Picture.

Though it starred some well-known performers — including Marlee Matlin, until now the only deaf person to ever win an Oscar for her performance (in 1987 for Children of a Lesser God), and multi-talented now-Best Actor winner Troy Kotsur — it didn’t have any grabby names or obvious Oscar-bait hook. CODA, named for the acronym Children of Deaf Adults, is a movie about a hearing teenager who works with her deaf parents and brother in their fishing business, but harbors aspirations of studying music. It’s based on a French film (the very similar 2014 La Famille Bélier). A large portion of it is in American Sign Language. It’s sweet, and funny, and a little corny, and very earnest.

But here we are: A movie distributed by a streaming service has won Best Picture, for the first time in 94 years of Oscar history. And against odds and most predictions until recently, that streaming service wasn’t Netflix, whose films The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up were considered among the strongest contenders for the night’s big prize. It was Apple TV+, which is low-key maybe the best streaming service out there but hasn’t managed to get a lot of traction with subscribers in the streamer glut, especially for its movies.

The service picked up CODA at Sundance, but it was a big gamble for them. Streamers haven’t yet fared very well with the Academy when it comes to winning. And CODA was released on August 13, 2021, in pre-pandemic times considered a dead spot in the release calendar. It did open in theaters, but not many of them. It didn’t have much buzz. If it nabbed some guild awards, maybe an Indie Spirit, that would be incredible.

A family at dinner.
Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, and Daniel Durant in CODA.

Hard to say exactly what happened, but looking at the calendar, you can kind of guess. The movie’s fortunes seemed to turn when, in late February, the film won the SAG award for its ensemble cast. Kotsur won for his performance that night, too, and started to pick up awards: a BAFTA, a Critics’ Choice, an Indie Spirit. And by the weekend before the Oscars, when the film won Best Adapted Screenplay from the Writers Guild and the top prize from the Producer’s Guild, it started to look like the little movie that could was actually a snowball starting to barrel down the hill.

Plus, it’s just … really nice to watch. It’s got a loving and imperfect family, a teenager with big dreams, and some tearjerking moments. Never discount the power of a movie that makes people feel a little verklempt by the end and feel as though they’re contributing to an overlooked issue — in this case, the difficulties deaf people can encounter in navigating a world overwhelmingly biased toward the hearing. If voters hadn’t seen the movie when it came out, the barrage of awards would attract their attention — and it could have seemed like a great option, especially to those who might have been tired out by the discourse around other films.

Whether it deserves the award is another question. There’s a lot to love about CODA, which feels, in many ways, like the kind of movie you can see any day at Sundance or, these days, on a streaming service. It’s modest. It’s about ordinary people living ordinary lives. It’s got some songs, and lessons, and a good heart.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see exactly how it fits the Best Picture category. The Academy tends to honor films that it sees as representative, in some way, of the past year in film. The Best Picture winner is the movie that the largest voting body in Hollywood, made up entirely of people who are working at the highest levels in the film industry, wish to put forward as the best of the bunch, the example of what we can do.

It’s also hard to totally square CODA with that designation. It’s got some prominent weak spots (notably Eugenio Derbez, whose performance as the music teacher feels entirely out of place) and quirks, and doesn’t feel as steady, confident, and assured as any of the other films nominated in that category.

The fact that it prevailed may have something to do with the wackadoodle way that the Academy votes for Best Picture, which tends to award the prize to bland movies. In recent years, with changes in the Academy’s demographic makeup and films like Moonlight and Parasite (and even The Shape of Water), some of this has changed. But CODA does feel like the sort of movie most people can agree upon, and that helps it stand out.

A teenaged girl and her father sit in the back of a truck. He has his arm around her shoulders.
Emilia Jones and Troy Kotsur in CODA.

And in a way, the selection makes a lot of sense. Look, it’s been a tough year. It’s been a bewildering year in the movie industry. People were trying to make movies in the middle of a pandemic. Theaters were sort of open sometimes but nobody seemed to know whether they could go to them. Festivals and awards were canceled and moved and just plain weird to attend. Schedules were upended. There’s a lot of fear that huge-budget megablockbusters are the only movies that can matter anymore, the only ones that studios will choose to make, since they’re the only ones that make money back. Streaming, an inherently individualistic mode of watching, is eating into an industry that built itself on the communal experience of a theater. Nobody seems to have any idea what’s going to happen next.

CODA straddles that line between uncertainty and safety and maybe a little bit of a message to the industry decision-makers. Yes, it’s a movie that most people will see on their TVs, not a theater. But Apple TV+ did pay a lot of money to get it there, long after the independent production was completed.

It’s also a movie that placed enough value on the deaf community to surface some of the problems deaf viewers encounter when they watch a film, especially in a theater, and purposely find ways to counteract that. It’s not an original story (it won Best Adapted Screenplay, after all), but it’s not based on IP that would be familiar to its audience. You can read the honor the Academy paid to it as a message to the studios: You may not make as much money off these movies, but we still want them.

Is that enough to make studios listen? Sadly, probably not. But as a representative of the topsy-turvy movie year, in a topsy-turvy world, handed out at a remarkably topsy-turvy Oscars, it might not be half bad. It may not really be 2021’s best film, but CODA’s Best Picture win might just make the best sense.

CODA is streaming on Apple TV+.

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