Sunday, March 27th: the date the newest Academy Awards, or Oscars, aired. And while it was a very eventful ceremony for reasons not having to do with the awards themselves, it was also the night in which Sian Heder’s drama about a deaf family, CODA, won Best Picture. Jane Campion’s Netflix western The Power of the Dog was the clear frontrunner for months, meeting every statistic and winning every precursor award. And yet, CODA had a last-minute wave of passion and support that overpowered Power; CODA won the PGA award, SAG award for Best Ensemble, and got screened at the White House in the weeks leading up to the ceremony. This was enough for it to take home what is arguably the highest honor in all of cinema. However, it’s my opinion that while CODA is a good movie, it did not deserve to be crowned Best Picture.
The consensus that CODA is an ingenious emotional masterpiece the likes of which nobody has ever seen before is false. There is nothing innovative about CODA – a coming-of-age tale about an aspiring teenage singer, Ruby, and her struggles with being the only hearing child in a deaf family. CODA is not an original movie – the screenplay is quite literally a direct remake of La Famille Bélier, a 2014 French film that garnered moderate critical and commercial acclaim. That’s why it was placed in the Oscars’ Adapted Screenplay category. And make no mistake, CODA did not deserve more than the moderate acclaim its predecessor got. When you compare CODA to The Power of the Dog (mini-review at #14 on this ranking), the latter is clearly superior.
For one, The Power of the Dog‘s effort on a technical and directorial level exceeds that of CODA. The cinematography in Power of the Dog is stunning and meticulous, whereas the camerawork in CODA is totally restrained; the score for Power of the Dog is ominous and exacting, yet I dare you to remember a single second of CODA‘s soundtrack. That sentiment can be applied to every technical aspect of CODA, including the direction itself. Sian Heder’s ability to bridge her hearing and deaf cast is admittedly impressive, but her inability to infuse her movie with even an iota of style is regrettable. Meanwhile, Jane Campion’s directorial vision for Power of the Dog is impeccable. The Oscars themselves acknowledge this – CODA is the first movie to win Best Picture without a Best Director or any technical nominations, while Campion won for Best Director.
Furthermore, CODA’s screenplay does even less for the film than its mediocre direction. The Power of the Dog‘s intellectual, complex screenplay towers over it, and even still it was CODA‘s screenplay that won on Sunday night. CODA is about a teenage girl trying to tell her deaf family what she wants to do in life – pursue her passion of singing, rather than aid the family with her hearing. It’s not a bad story, but the way the script tackles it is bland and dull. Ruby asks her family, “How is music rude but Tinder’s okay?” and her mother replies, “because Tinder is something we can all do as a family.” That is the bluntest possible way to convey the film’s themes. It’s another example of Heder’s impotence to inundate her film with any precision or nuance. The Academy chose to award a simplistic coming-of-age story about a high school singer over Jane Campion’s intellectually stunning script for The Power of the Dog, and that is disappointing.
However, I did agree with the final reward CODA received – Best Supporting Actor, for Troy Kotsur. His performance as Frank, Ruby’s deaf dad, may not have been the very best supporting male performance of the year, but certainly places in the top five. His emotional, incredibly charismatic, and raw performance made me both laugh and tear up. From angry sign-language monologues, to hilarious familial moments, to a final scene in the bed of a truck that is one for the ages, Kotsur’s performance is without a doubt Oscar-worthy. While I do narrowly prefer Kodi Smit-McPhee’s portrayal of Peter in The Power of the Dog, a cunning young man who intellectually outmaneuvers the verbally abusive Phil and saves his mother from further psychological torment, he has not yet entered his prime and will have plenty of other opportunities to win Oscars. For that reason, I’m happy with Kotsur’s win.
Kotsur is not the only excellent CODA cast member. Emilia Jones brings a wonderful voice and several impactful moments to the character of Ruby, and has wonderfully expressive facial expressions in certain scenes, such as one where she describes (in sign language) why she loves to sing. Ruby’s choir teacher is bombastically played by Eugenio Derbez, someone so passionate about the art of chorus that he inspires Ruby to venture beyond her family and pursue her talent. There’s something magical about how Daniel Durant approaches the character of Leo, Ruby’s deaf brother. It’s a very economical rendition, always careful to react in the most realistic fashion possible. But the one weak link of the ensemble is Marlee Matlin, who plays Ruby’s deaf mother Jackie. While Matlin is a phenomenal actress, her character is enormously unlikeable, and Matlin does nothing to bring this terrible person to life. Nonetheless, the adoration for CODA‘s ensemble at the SAG awards and elsewhere is definitely deserved.
CODA deserves a 3 on the “Rea-ting” system. It isn’t a special film, and certainly did not deserve its Best Picture win, but be that as it may, it’s a very enjoyable watch.