In what must be considered at least a mild upset, indie darling CODA beat out such heavy weights as Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. It beat out Nightmare Alley starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchet. It beat out Don’t Look Up and its plethora of stars including Lonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, and a brigade of other A-list talent. It beat out Will Smith vehicle King Richard. It beat out international darling Drive My Car. CODA indeed turned out to be the little engine that could, winning all three awards for which it was nominated, including Best Picture.
CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults, and the main character is Ruby Rossie (Emilia Jones), a teenager who is the only hearing person in her family that includes her deaf parents, Jackie and Frank (Marlee Matlin & Troy Kotsur in a Best Supporting Actor-winning performance) and a deaf older brother, Leo (Daniel Durant). Frank is a fisherman and she has to help on the boat every day before school, where she is a misfit and often the target of teasing by other kids. As she struggles to fit in at school, she also struggles to help her father and brother keep their fishing business alive as they have to deal with a lack of fish and ab abundance of government regulation.
Screenwriter and director Sian Heder did a masterful job in her Oscar-winning screenplay of creating a layered story that was not difficult to follow and had a riveting Hero’s Journey that helped make it such a strong story, both thematically and emotionally. Not only that, but she gave us characters who were ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances, and those circumstances created dramatic situations.
The Ordinary World is set up right away to show Ruby working the boat with Frank and Leo. On the boat, she’s listening to music and she has a great voice. We also learn that Ruby is a spunky and witty kid who is bullied at school and given heavy expectations at home. She immediately presented to us as a likable character who is also sympathetic. In fact, all of the characters are likable, and that’s what makes Ruby’s impending decision so hard. Hedler did what every good screenwriter and director should do. She set up the story so that Ruby would have to choose between what she wants (to be a singer) and what her family needs (to keep Ruby working on the boat).
In true Hero’s Journey fashion, Ruby gets two calls to adventure and she refuses them both, and these stages happen in tandem with Meeting the Mentor. The first call she gets is when she signs up for choir. We already know she’s a good singer, but she only signs up because Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a boy she is interested in, has already signed up. The refusal comes when she’s in the first rehearsal and the teacher, Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez), who serves the archetypal role of the mentor throughout the story, wants everyone to sing Happy Birthday. Rather than risk embarrassment in front of her peers, she runs out of the class. After coming back and giving Mr. V a chance to hear her voice, he presents her with another call to adventure to train for an audition for Berklee College of Music. She initially refuses that call as well because it would interfere with her ability to help with the fishing boat, before finally accepting it, at which point she crosses the first threshold.
All of this gets us through the first act of a very well-structured screenplay that was worthy of its own Oscar win. Moving into the second act, the Tests, allies, and enemies stage is obvious. The first test she faces is learning a duet with Miles. They start off awkward at first, but just when they’re getting comfortable rehearsing the song in her house, they hear her parents having sex. After Miles tells the friend at school about it, word spreads like wildfire, and it nearly destroys their burgeoning relationship. Ruby also has to balance her responsibilities with her family with her new responsibilities with music class. Add to the fact that her deaf mother doesn’t have any comprehension of what she’s trying to do and is questioning Ruby’s motives, and we have a second act that builds the drama and the tension of the story very nicely.
The Approach and the Supreme Ordeal are two scenes in one. Ruby decides to blow off fishing one day to go swimming with Miles. That particular day a state monitor goes on the boat with Frank and Leo and turns them in to the Coast Guard for operating the boat in an unsafe manner due to their disability and without a hearing person on the boat. That leads to the Reward. Ruby makes her choice. She decides that school can wait and she’s going to stay at home and be the hearing person on the boat so Frank and Leo can continue to fish.
That leads to the Road Back and back-to-back emotionally powerful scenes.
Ruby still takes part in the choir’s concert. Frank, Jackie, and Leo come to support her, even though they can’t hear. Leo’s girlfriend Gertie, who can hear, tells them she’s a good singer. When she starts her duet with Miles, Heder did something remarkable. She turned the sound off so we could watch the concert from Frank’s point of view. He can only see Ruby singing and the joy it brings her. Then he looks around. He sees the faces of the other people in the audience. They are clearly enjoying and moved by Ruby’s singing. After getting home, Frank asks Ruby to sing the song for her. As she does, he puts his hands on her throat to feel the vibrations of her singing. He actually connects with Ruby in a way that heretofore seemed impossible. Speaking for myself, it’s one of the most heartwarming scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.
The Resurrection is a literal resurrection of Ruby’s dream. Frank decides that her dream cannot die and the family puts her in the car for the drive to Boston and her audition at Berklee. It seems like she’s going to flame out before she even gets the opportunity to even start. But then Mr. V shows up to play the accompaniment. It looks like she might flame out again until her parents and brother sneak in to watch from the back. She starts signing as she sings and the passion comes out. It’s another emotionally gripping scene that only the most hardened of hearts could get through without wet eyes.
The Return with the Elixir… Well, I’ll save that for you to see yourself.
Did the Academy get it right?
I can say unequivocally that they did. I have already posted that CODA was my favorite film of the year, and that can be seen here. Aside from that, the last two years have been difficult on all of us. CODA is the feel-good movie that we needed (and deserved), and it’s been a long time since a feel-good movie won Best Picture. You could make the case that Green Book was a feel-good movie, but it was so polarizing that any feel-good aspects associated with it were washed away. In my humble opinion, the last movie to win Best Picture that could truly be called a feel-good movie was 2010’s The King’s Speech, or maybe 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which was another little engine that could. Either way, it’s been a while since a feel-good kid of movie won, so maybe we were due.
But even just looking at CODA on the merits, it deserved to win Best Picture. It has a layered story with a main character who has the classic dilemma of having to choose between what she wants and what she needs. There’s really a deeper layer than that because, in fact, she has to choose between what she needs and what her family, the people she loves, needs. And that need isn’t trivial at all. Her family lives with a disability and she appears to be the only one who can help them. This is a real problem with no easy answers.
When comparing Coda to the other films that were nominated this year, CODA had the most. It was a well-crafted story that was also entertaining and emotionally captivating. Each of the other films nominated this year had one or two of those qualities, but CODA was the only one with all three. It was clearly the most deserving film this year to be named Best Picture.
Should you see it?
Absolutely. This is a story that will not only entertain you, but it will make you feel something. For aspiring screenwriters, this film has a script that any screenwriter can learn from, as it’s win for Best Adapted Screenplay demonstrates. This is a film that, if you have not seen, or even if you have seen only once, you should do what you can to see it or see it again.