The Battle for Best Picture

Coda: Why this year’s feel-good favourite was the right Best Picture Oscar winner

In the chaos of awards season, the internet is starting to grasp wildly for the heroes and villains of this story. And it’d be wrong to dismiss Cod’s Best Picture chances just because it’s a crowd-pleaser, writes Clarisse Loughrey

Tuesday 29 March 2022 07:55 BST
‘Coda’ was something of an underdog when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021
‘Coda’ was something of an underdog when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021 (Apple TV+)

People love to argue about the Oscars, even when they’re not sure exactly what they’re arguing about. And awards season this year hasn’t exactly handed them a tidy narrative to work from – the biopics, like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Spencer, are a little too self-aware to play as strictly conventional. The A-list-packed satire Don’t Look Up, and the lushly traditional musical West Side Story, fell by the wayside early on in the race.

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast was the most obvious Oscar bait of the pack, but while Jane Campion’s meticulously directed western, The Power of the Dog, was an early frontrunner, it was Siân Heder’s Coda that ultimately walked away with Best Picture. Some saw this coming: the film had landed several crucial wins during the run-up to Oscars, including the Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild. Coda, an honest and sincere drama about a hearing child in a deaf family, was something of an underdog when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. The film received rapturous reviews and a healthy dollop of publicity, and walked away from Sundance with a record-breaking $25m acquisition deal with Apple TV+.

You’d think a surprise win like that would add some much-needed joy to a tumultuous, overall quite depressing, ceremony. But people are always looking for the heroes and villains to their story, and it seems like Heder’s film has become a prime target for a lot of the internet’s ire. And the backlash, for the most part, seems largely out of touch with the true, material impact of the Oscars. Ultimately, these awards don’t decide which individual films we remember in a decade’s, or two decades’, time. The Power of the Dog and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car will continue to be talked about in the ways they were talked about before. But they do frequently dictate the kinds of names, ideas, and faces Hollywood is willing to put its money behind.

It mattered when Parasite won, because it helped shake a little of the fear of subtitled films out of English-speaking audiences. It mattered that Chloé Zhao won for Nomadland, because it offered genuine hope that the barriers for women directors, and especially women of colour, were starting to break. And it matters that Coda won because of the doors it will open for other majority deaf casts.

It’s been frequently dismissed by commentators as a shallow crowd-pleaser, but the label only fits if you’re faithfully tied to the assumption that any expression of sentimentality should be equated automatically with naivete. There’s nothing slight or simplistic about Coda. The family at its centre – Frank (Troy Kotsur) and Jackie (Marlee Matlin) plus their kids Leo (Daniel Durant) and Ruby (Emilia Jones) – remain a stubborn, bubbling mess of conflicted desires and personal duties. Ruby wants to be a musician but, as the hearing child of deaf parents, positioned as their de facto interpreter, she worries that striking out on her own would sever one of their few concrete connections to hearing culture. Meanwhile, her father’s work in the fishing industry has come under threat of corporate interference, with 60 per cent of his catch now handed over to middlemen.

There’s nothing cutesy about the difficult choices these characters are forced to make between what they want and who they’ve dedicated themselves to. And Heder’s unfussy approach to the film allows her cast to craft a family dynamic that feels firmly grounded in experience, as they tease and argue, each gesture insulated by love. Coda allows its hearing audience only one moment of concession, as the sound cuts out midway through one of Ruby’s performances. Her parents, reading the micro-gestures and choked-back sobs of the other audience members, finally realise how gifted their daughter is. In a night where, as Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain remarked, the word “love” seemed to be commonly repeated – what could possibly be the harm in the Oscars wanting to reward something of that straightforward, emotional purity?

Find the full list of 2022 Oscar winners here. See the latest updates and reactions from the dramatic ceremony here, and read about the biggest talking points here.

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