Following the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, February 27th and the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Sunday, March 6th, awards season is now officially going full steam ahead. Every Oscars race tends to have its underdog, and this year’s movie-that-could has the potential to be Sian Heder’s CODA.
CODA received warm reactions following a premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Apple TV+, but initially failed to generate the kind of buzz seen around some of this year’s other top titles. Even so — and rightly so — the morning of the Oscar nominations saw CODA emerge with three nominations, including one for Best Picture.
Adapted from a 2014 French film, La Famille Bélier, CODA is centered on Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a deaf family. The story unfolds gorgeously against the backdrop of coastal Gloucester, Massachusetts — Ruby is part of a family of fishers, and every part of her life is tied to her family and their business. Ruby, though, has a remarkable singing voice, and is encouraged by a school music teacher (Eugenio Derbez, wonderful) to pursue a spot at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The central tension, of course, comes from the fact that Ruby’s gift cannot be shared with her family, and would ultimately pull her — the de facto interpreter — away from home. In less capable hands, these themes could have easily veered into cliche territory, but Sian Heder’s script and the incredible cast instead deliver a deeply moving testament to the power of familial love.
Every time Emilia Jones opens her mouth to sing is a revelatory moment on screen. Her dynamic with her family feels human, unexaggerated, and sincere, and this is where CODA becomes a bit of a miracle of a film — people who have not experienced the particular struggle of the Rossi family will still find so many truths in the themes portrayed here.
The Rossi family is rounded out by deaf actors, a critical choice that initially received pushback from the film’s financiers. Ruby’s mother is played by the wonderful Marlee Matlin, warm and funny as she tries to understand her daughter’s trajectory. Her brother, Leo, is brought to life by Daniel Durant, best known for his work on stage, most notably in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening.
Every member of the Rossi family is fantastic, but the film is just about stolen by its patriarch, played by Troy Kotsur, who made history as the first deaf actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. (Matlin, his onscreen wife, previously won the Oscar for Lead Actress in 1986’s Children of a Lesser God.) Kotsur imbues Frank with warmth, humor, and a three-dimensionality that makes him and every scene in which he appears feel authentically lived-in.
Without spoiling anything, it’s Frank and Ruby’s relationship that stands out as the emotional centerpiece among many tear-jerking moments. It seems voters are in relative agreement on the point of Kotsur, who has now won the Supporting Actor category at both the SAG Awards and the Spirit Awards, pushing him into potential frontrunner territory for the Academy Awards, too.