On Sunday night, “CODA” made history at the 94th Oscar Awards ceremony. It is the first movie with a predominantly deaf cast, and by a streaming service, to win Best Picture.
“CODA,” which premiered last year at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, added diversity in tone to the 2022 Oscars lineup. The Academy usually favors intense psychological dramas and biopics, and this year’s Best Picture list featured many. It was both exciting and refreshing to see films with very different styles in this year’s nominations.
The film is cliche, but it makes no apologies. It is essentially “High School Musical” with sex and slightly more serious bullying, and is similar in style to “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Garden State” and “The Spectacular Now.” It’s a feel-good film. The plot and character arcs are clear from the beginning. There is an idealistic mentor and a make-or-break audition. It features a classic subplot — the protagonist, Ruby (Emilia Jones), wants to get into Berklee College of Music, and help her family with their fishing business. There is a budding romance as well.
What many people don’t know is that “CODA” is a remake of a 2014 French film. “La Famille Bélier” tells the same story, with hearing actors portraying the deaf family. It was criticized for being an inaccurate portrayal of the deaf community. The use of French sign language was often inaccurate and it was seen as overtly stereotypical. The 2021 remake, however, tries to avoid these mistakes. The Rossi family is portrayed by deaf actors and native speakers of sign language Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant. The authenticity comes through in their performances. Sign language has nuance and tone just like any spoken language. With actual members of the deaf community using their own form of communication, candidness is given to the film and the family’s dynamic. The Rossi’s look and feel like a real tight-knit family, with their own quirks and relationships. The great acting bolsters the tired trope, creating a feel-good movie with deeper merit.
The film was certainly made in good faith with the goal of authentically representing the deaf community. It is also an accurate and heartfelt portrayal of a working-class family. If “CODA” is a representation of anything, it’s the nuance of representation in the current media landscape.
Vice chair of the nonprofit RespectAbility and member of the deaf community Delbert Whetter said of the film, “After seeing so many stories where people with disabilities are depicted as helpless, forlorn souls needing to be rescued, it is so refreshing to see a story with Deaf characters that are small business owners and leaders in their fishing community, with depth and nuance that rival and even exceed that of their hearing counterparts in the story.”
Jenna Beacom, a sensitivity reader and young adult author, was “very disturbed by how negatively the movie portrays the deaf and CODA experiences… I actually think the story of a first-gen college student, just without the music—is more compelling.”
Is either of these people right or wrong? No, of course not. Perfect media representation for any group that makes every represented person feel seen may never exist. “CODA” is one story. It is not every story. What a gift that in the 21st century, so much media is being produced that space exists for such a niche and more films about deaf and hearing-impaired people will certainly be made in the future.
“CODA”’s win marks a distinct shift in what defines an Oscar-winning film. The win was, frankly, surprising — not because of the film’s quality, which will always be subjective, but because of its style. The plot was clear and heartwarming in a manner inconsistent with previous winners. “Nomadland” (2020), “Moonlight” (2016) and “Parasite” (2019), for instance, each explored complex themes of identity and social issues with psychological drama, alternative structure and imaginative premises. “CODA” is also the first Best Picture winner to be produced by a streaming service. The death of the box office has forced the Academy to accept streaming films into its ranks. Maybe this is why the film didn’t push boundaries but had the resources and backing to produce and distribute a technically qualified film. “CODA” is exactly what it sets out to be. Maybe in a world increasingly hyper-aware of every pressing social issue, a feel-good film with a satisfying ending was exactly what the Academy wanted to support.
“CODA” is available to stream on Apple TV+.