As we all know, there were two particular men that everyone was talking about the morning after the Academy Awards. This was a shame for many reasons but mostly because in the days and weeks afterwards, everyone should really have been talking about two women; Jane Campion and Sian Heder. Campion became the third female to win Best Director in the entire ninety four year history of the Oscars (she was already the only woman to ever to be nominated twice) and Heder was the third to direct a film that was named Best Picture. In fact Heder was the first woman to call the shots on a winning movie that didn’t also get the directing nod. There have only been a total of eighteen films directed by a woman ever nominated for the top award so to have two woman honoured this way in the same ceremony was unheard of, and hopefully a real indication of things to come, not just in the Oscars but in American cinema as a whole.
Of course, just as with Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, most people expected both awards to go to the same film again. I was rooting for The Power of the Dog myself. I’d not seen CODA until this week but I understood it to be a charming but clichéd movie while Campion’s movie is a bold and unexpected piece of work that genuinely moves the medium forward. Now though, I am pleased that CODA got the main prize, not only for the historical significance but because it is a lovely film that deserves to be celebrated. I really rate The Power of the Dog, it is a superb movie and I still admire it more, but of the two this is the one I most enjoyed.
I can see the criticisms. CODA is very formulaic and it goes exactly where you expect it to at almost every turn. I can also see the ‘hearing saviour’ concerns that have bothered some in the deaf community, and I understand that the whole ‘deaf people can’t enjoy music’ idea that drives some of the plot is a bit of a trope. This only highlights the talents of Heder though because in someone else’s hands this could have been awful. Sometimes a little bit of cliche can be fun; cliches become cliches because the ideas behind them are appealing and popular, and Heder manages these parts beautifully. She also shepherds some excellent performances from her cast. Emilia Jones is a captivating lead and the key supporting cast members Troy Kotspur and Marlee Matlin are both wonderful (he got the awards but she is easily his match). Despite its well trod elements (teenage girls wants to escape her life to become a singer, falls for the boy, argues with her parents, has an underwritten/oversexed best friend) CODA feels totally fresh and honest.
The awareness this film raises of those in the deaf and CODA (children of deaf adults) community also lifts this film above the ordinary. Yes it feels like our way in to the story is largely through the non-disabled characters, which wouldn’t fly if this was an underrepresented group based on ethnicity, but the name of the film is significant, the protagonist is herself from a minority bracket. As someone not from this background, it seemed to me that the depiction of life as a deaf person was authentic and I choose to trust the media discussions that support this. Matlin and Kotsur as the parents of Jones’ Ruby, and Daniel Durant who plays her brother are all deaf themselves and their own experiences are clearly poured into their performances. I’m certainly inspired to add to the very little makaton I can remember and learn sign language. In fact, thanks to this film I already know the ASL for some very creative expletive expressions so I’ve made a start. The characterisation of three of them is all so much more than their disability as well.
The supporting cast may be a little weaker. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, previously so strong in Sing Street, seems a little reserved here as Ruby’s love interest. Eugenio Derbez is good but he is the very model of the movie teacher who is high on inspiration but lower on boundaries, and I wasn’t able to get past last seeing him in Dora the Explorer. Here it’s not a case of Swiper no swiping as much as it is archetype no archetyping.
In the end though, any criticisms are heavily outweighed by what succeeds in being a heartfelt and genuinely inspiring film. I applaud it just like all those people did in the Dolby Theatre in LA on March 27th. Let’s remember the clapping and not the slapping.
The Ripley Factor:
It’s hard not to think that the creative success of CODA at least partly comes because the movie has a female director. Gender traits, when they are evident in film makers tend to come from men as with people like Michael Bay or Adam McKay. There is an idea that a woman is more likely to make something soppy but that isn’t the case now, if it has ever been. Lord knows Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow are evidence of this. Arguably, with their winning films the two of them were typically playing with genres more commonly associated with men and while this is something to celebrate in itself, it is great to see directors like Zhao and now Heder succeeding by making real and touching stories about women in relatable situations.
CODA is available on Apple TV and following its Oscar success is now doing the rounds again in a few cinemas.