Oscars Aftermath: Catching Up with 'CODA'
15 months after its Sundance premiere, a modest family drama has become a phenomenon on multiple fronts. The film is ill-served by its success.
Back in 2007, my friend and former A.V. Club and The Dissolve cohort Mike D’Angelo followed through on a radical idea: He would attend the Cannes Film Festival without knowing any information about what was playing and would see all the films completely cold, relying on friends to tell him when and where to show up. Mike found the element of surprise appealing, the endorphin rush of sitting down in a theater and discovering that you’re seeing a new work by one world-class filmmaker or another. But then, he was more compelled by another aspect of this “grand, quixotic experiment.” To wit:
So much information is now available to the net-connected cinephile that the act of watching a movie can seem almost like an afterthought. I have friends whose reading is so extensive and omnivorous that they often know virtually every detail of a film long before they actually see it. What would it be like, I wondered, to go to the opposite extreme—to know absolutely nothing? Would I respond more openly to movies by filmmakers who've underwhelmed me in the past? Would I recognize the artistic signature of longtime favorites? Would my interaction with the work in front of me be more pure, more genuine, in the absence of whatever conscious and/or unconscious assumptions I'd usually tote in with me?
I thought about Mike’s experiment after finally catching up with CODA over the weekend—over 15 months after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and a week after it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Because it occurred to me that I could have seen it in three(-ish) radically different contexts:
Context 1: At the Sundance premiere (or virtual premiere, due to the pandemic). Other than having issuing a mixed review of Sian Heder’s previous film, Tallulah, with Elliot Page and Allison Janney, all I would have known about CODA is that it was part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition slate, which showcases great and terrible work every year. Not quite Mike-level ignorance, but with no reviews yet and little prerelease buzz it would have been close to a clean slate. This is obviously ideal.
Context 2: In general release, before awards season, starting in mid-August in theaters and on Apple TV+. At this point, CODA had thoroughly dominated Sundance, picking up the top jury and audience awards, as well as nods for Heder and the ensemble cast. Apple paid a record-breaking $25 million for it, a figure largely understood, then and now, as a volley in the streaming wars, which had heated up as the pandemic quickened the migration from big screen to small, and more platforms had entered the fray. Sundance had experienced boom-and-bust periods in the past, and 2021’s was extravagant. From afar, CODA looked like an absurd overpay, like the notorious $10 million Castle Rock spent on The Spitfire Grill in 1996, before tepid reviews brought it crashing to earth. (CODA, it should be noted, was much more warmly received by critics, though few were ecstatic.)
Context 3: During Oscar season. CODA was one of 10 films nominated for Best Picture, and also won nominations for Tony Kotsur’s supporting performance and for Heder’s script, adapted from a 2014 French crowd-pleaser called Le Famille Bélier. Had the Best Picture category been limited to five nominees, as it was for many decades, it’s easy to imagine CODA not making the final list at all. But here it was the-little-movie-that-could, squaring off against the grander visions of established directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Jane Campion, Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and Denis Villeneuve. (All of whose films, it should be noted, were drawing a hell of a lot more fire in the press and on social media.)
Context 3(b): Immediately after it won Best Picture. [waves hello]
Context 3(c): Months, years, or decades after it won Best Picture.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies (and a little TV). While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability.
Ordinary viewers almost never get a shot at Context 1, unless they’re attending a festival as a member of the public or a pre-release screening before the review embargo is lifted. (And there’s no sense, either, in paying real money without knowing anything at all about what you’re seeing.) But even if you have some preconceived ideas about what CODA might be like—of having seen Tallulah or Le Famille Bélier, say, or having watched the trailer or read the plot synopsis—that’s still vastly preferable to any other context, because at least those preconceptions are all film-related. You would have met the film at its intended scale, when it was the sort of modest family drama that slips out of Sundance every year, and not a large club wielded by the biggest tech company in the world or a “sleeper” in a vacuous months-long awards horserace.
I haven’t been to Sundance, virtual or otherwise, since 2001. But if I had logged in to the festival 20 years later, I’d like to believe that my reaction to CODAwould have been the same as it is now, at the end of the dreaded hype cycle. In broad strokes, the film operates like Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty, a first-rate 1988 drama about a gifted teenager whose musical ambitions clash with his obligations to a close-knit family. In the Lumet film, Danny (River Phoenix) is a pianist who has the talent to get into Juilliard, but his parents (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) are Weather Underground-types on the lam, and if he leaves, he might never see them again. In Heder’s film, Ruby (Emilia Jones) is a singer eying Berklee College of Music, but as a child of deaf adults, she is a crucial bridge between her parents (Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and brother (Daniel Durant) and the hearing members of a Massachusetts fishing community.
The comparison doesn’t work to CODA’s favor. Both films are moving and beautifully acted, and the consequences for Danny and Ruby leaving home are no small matter. Danny and his parents will only see each other surreptitiously, if at all, for the rest of his life. And for Ruby’s family, the financial margins of a new fishing co-op business are razor thin, and demand a strong line of communication on the boat, in the market, and among others in the hearing world. (The notion of deafness as this burdensome, however, has been a mild source of controversy for the film.)
The stakes are lower in CODA, if only because Ruby and her family would only be an hour’s drive apart—she could come home on weekends!—while Danny’s family would be permanently cleaved. Lumet provides a window into what that feels like in Running On Empty’s most affecting scene, when Danny’s mother arranges to meet with her dad in New York and the full impact of their separation registers with devastating effect. And yet Running On Empty is the less sentimental of the two, building to a gorgeous final scene where a decision is made as simply and brusquely as a nestling getting knocked from the perch. CODA wraps up with three different singing performances, two montages, and multiple goodbyes, all for an exit that’s not nearly as traumatic in the short- or long-term.
I was grateful, however, to find CODA engrossing enough to push past the minor irritation of its cutesier touches, like the overplayed horniness and vulgarity of Ruby’s parents or Eugenio Derbez’s feisty inspirational teacher/therapist type, which was no better back when Robin Williams played it in Good Will Hunting. At its best, the film uses Ruby’s situation to flash insight into the push-and-pull of adolescent development, when teenagers have to put an uncomfortable wedge between themselves and their family in order to make their own way into the world. I choked up multiple times, and only occasionally felt grossly manipulated. The film could have used harder edges and more restraint—again, the Running On Empty parallels are unflattering—but it’s mostly earnest and ingratiating and fine.
The major irritations are not the film’s problem, at least insofar as its status as a massive phenomenon couldn’t be reasonably anticipated. Outside of Context 1, CODA has been a symbol for much larger phenomena, first as a prize for a streaming company looking for a foothold (and an identity) in a crowded and financially unsustainable marketplace, then later as the consensus choice among Oscar nominees when voters found other films more alienating. In both cases, we’re not talking about the “net-connected cinephile” Mike described in 2007 but a much larger pool of people who care about the machinations of the business, to the point where box-office earnings (or clicks) are victories and fan culture extends to rooting for large corporations. In the streaming wars context, when Apple pays $25 million for CODA, there is no expectation that it will recoup the money. Instead, it’s a move against competitors, and an investment in Apple TV+ as a brand that’s tightly curated yet widely accessible. Now, the service has its flagship.
The Oscar context is worse. A fellow critic recently told me that winning Best Picture was the worst thing that could have happened to CODA. That seems wildly counterintuitive, but consider this classic historical comparison: How Green Was My Valley may not be John Ford’s mightiest swing for the fences, but it’s a wonderful movie with the not-so-wonderful legacy of defeating the greatest the film of them all, Citizen Kane, for Best Picture in 1942. Even if you loved CODA—and many in the Academy, not to mention Sundance, unquestionably do—it’s a deeply conventional movie, shrinking in comparison to the artistry and scope of The Power of the Dog or Drive My Car or West Side Story or Licorice Pizza. It doesn’t take a minute’s hindsight to acknowledge that the pleasant, affecting CODA will not be understood as the Oscar’s most audacious choice.
But the debased conversation about the Oscars—fueled by multimillion-dollar campaigns, social media kerfuffles, and some of the vilest opinion-writers in the game—will eventually shift to other candidates and controversies, with films working their way through another human centipede of takes. In the world of Context 3(c), CODA gets to return to the film I was mildly interested in seeing for the last 15 months but had assumed, properly, that other work like Quo Vadis, Aida?, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn should be prioritized. Never forget: The movies you should seek out are ideally the ones that are going to be worth your time. Would that it were so simple.
Great article that delicately eases into the hard truth about CODA: stumbling across it as a Disney Channel Movie of the Week it's maybe a fine surprise, a Best Picture win makes it a dispiriting sign of cultural cowardice. It's not like the Oscars have been totally given over to pabulum - for every Green Book we get a Parasite, for every CODA a Moonlight. CODA owes its win to a pandemic-weakened slate as much as anything and such is the gift and curse of the ranked-tier voting system. The Power of the Dog may have gotten many of us amped, but to Campion's eternal credit I don't think she's capable of making a movie that won't find its way to the bottom half of many Academy ballots.
I think the only place the CODA is ill-served by winning Best Picture is in the opinions of people who read exemplary newsletters like the The Reveal. Among less terminally obsessed people in my life, it seems winning has helped it find an audience, which is all I hope for any movie (with the exception of the Joker/Green Book/Birdman tier of Oscar nominee). Family and co-workers like it, and they wouldn't have seen it otherwise -- that's all CODA ever asked for. That said, modern audiences should be asking for a lot more from CODA and Hollywood studios more broadly.