Yes, it deserved to win

March 30, 2022

Confession: Though I write about the movies professionally, I avoided seeing the film CODA until a few hours before the Oscar ceremony where it won the top prize—when I finally booted up Apple TV Plus and sat down with my wife and kids. From the moment I heard about this tale of a working-class family with two deaf parents, a deaf son, and a hearing daughter, it seemed like the kind of movie that demanded you like it or be accused of being mean to a disabled person. And I can’t stand that kind of emotional cultural blackmail. I’ll bet there are a lot of people like me who saw or read about CODA and thought, "Well, that’s like a virtue-signaling homework assignment, and I have something better to do with my time."

As it turns out, you don’t. CODA is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful movie. I’d go so far as to say it’s among the most sheerly moving movies I’ve ever seen. I spent the last half hour in tears, and those weren’t tears of grief or sorrow or discomfort. Rather, I was deeply, profoundly touched.

What writer-director Sian Heder has pulled off here (working off a 2014 French movie called La Famille Bélier) is a meticulously constructed portrait of utter decency. That is quite a feat. It’s incredibly tricky to tell a story about people who are basically doing their best and trying their best and being their best—and who aren’t being persecuted by villains but are forced to cope with life’s difficult circumstances—without being banal or drippy. Indeed, it may be the hardest of all storytelling tasks. I’ve heard some people dismiss CODA for being schmaltzy, but that is incredibly unjust. Something is schmaltzy when it’s laid on thick, like chicken fat (which is what "schmaltz" is). As both writer and director, Heder shows uncommon delicacy and restraint, and when she reaches the emotional climax of the movie in a moment that unexpectedly brings its protagonist’s two talents—singing and signing—together, the overwhelming rush of feeling is entirely earned.

CODA is, in one sense, a classic and familiar story—an account of the last year of high school for a talented kid from the provinces who has to leave home and leave her family behind if she is to make the most of her God-given talents. This you’ve seen or read a million times, from The Corn Is Green to Running on Empty (to… well… Making It).

Ruby Rossi (played by the incandescent Emilia Jones in the performance that should have won the Best Actress Oscar) wakes up at 3 every morning in her bedroom in Gloucester, Mass., to go out on a fishing boat with her father and brother. She then helps them sell their catch by interpreting their sign for the buyers on the dock. At school, she is an indifferent student—not least because she falls asleep during class because she’s been up since 3—and is treated oddly by her peers because they know everyone else in her family is deaf.

Her parents are madly in love and wildly individual. Her father (the Oscar-winning Troy Kotsur) is a bearded, dope-smoking, fun-loving pseudo-hippie. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) retains the great beauty of her youth, but keeps herself apart from hearing people in part because her hearing mother was a great disappointment to her. Their family fishing business is endangered by financial hardships, which are nicely weaved into the plot. Her brother Leo has good ideas about how to save them from disaster but is stymied by the diffidence of their parents.

Ruby loves to sing, but has no idea whether she’s good at it—and on a whim pursuing a crush, she signs up for the school choir. It turns out she’s very, very, very good at it, and is taken under the wing of the strict but wacky choirmaster (played with enormous gusto by Eugenio Derbez). He thinks she has a chance for a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But she has spent her life being the go-between for her family and the rest of the hearing world, and they depend on her. Even more painful, as she tells her teacher, "I’ve never done anything without my family." And by "anything," she means… anything.

The plot resolves the way such plots always resolve, but it is the journey here and not the destination that matters. These people are so lovable, and their embrace of life itself so heartfelt, that it is impossible not to fall in love with them. And with CODA. Don’t let the foolish skeptics talk you out of it, or let the movie-of-the-week aspect of it keep you away. It’s even worth subscribing to Apple TV Plus to see it. (There’s some other good stuff there too, like the Tom Hanks movies Finch and Greyhound and the new series Severance.)

Why did it win Best Picture? In this case, and for once, because it was the best picture.

Published under: Movie Reviews