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Ruby (Emilia Jones) performs a song on stage in CODA Photo: Apple TV Plus

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Why CODA deserves to win the Best Picture Oscar

A portrait of Deaf life goes far beyond the obvious

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize. Next up: Nightmare Alley.


CODA, an adaptation of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier from writer-director Sian Heder.


Life as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) comes crashing down for Ruby (Emilia Jones) in her final months of high school. A gifted singer who dreams of leaving home to study music, Ruby is also the keystone of her family’s fishing operation, lending her father Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and brother Leo (Daniel Durant) a crucial ear and an extra pair of hands as they trawl for fish off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. As her family struggles to understand her passion for music, and her position becomes increasingly more invaluable to a family trying to pay its bills, Ruby faces two roads: stay at home to forever support the unit, or invest in her dreams.


While CODA is the only true American indie on this year’s Best Picture slate, it arrives in the race with retro and recent awards power. In 1987, Matlin became the first Deaf performer to ever win an Oscar for her performance alongside William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God. The prize launched her career in film and television, though she’s often typecast as the lone Deaf character or guest star. CODA marks one of her highest-profile roles alongside other Deaf actors.

More than 30 years after Children of a Lesser God moved the needle for Deaf inclusion in Hollywood, CODA made history at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. While the all-virtual fest may have dampened the fanfare, Heder’s drama was the first film ever to win Sundance’s grand jury prize, directing prize, audience award, and a special jury prize — an apt nod for best ensemble.


Scale is an overvalued metric when it comes to determining the “best” movies. Yes, helming a gargantuan project like Dune and leading a battalion of craftspeople in one unified vision is an achievement, but it shouldn’t be worth bonus points in the Best Picture category. Decoding relatable human experiences and reconstructing them as moments that play onscreen — where lighting, sound, editing, and an actor’s presence need to be harmonious — feels as daunting as a giant setpiece with a thousand extras.

But in 111 minutes, Heder plays a potentially dusty coming-of-age scenario for all the comedy, tears, and emotional sparks viewers could imagine. To not only keep that action steady in a bilingual mode, English and ASL, but to take advantage of the performative aspects of sign language, adds another layer of dynamism to the storytelling. Maybe it’s Lifetime’s fault, or the churn of Netflix originals, but at some point, “family drama” became a pejorative. Heder reclaims the genre for prestige filmmaking through authenticity. Jones is a dimensional young person, sharp but aware of her need for wisdom. The supporting cast are tough and quirky — like real family — and they all have little moments that don’t force the plot forward, a rarity in the indie runtime economy. CODA is everything a small movie should be, and it’d be too easy for it to be eclipsed by the Oscar heavyweights.


In a recent oral history of Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again’s see-it-to-believe-it ending, director Ol Parker lambasted Stateside critics for ragging on the tone he intended to achieve as if it were a mistake. ​​”American critics pissed all over it,” he says. “I remember ‘crowd-pleasing’ was used as an insult, ‘heartwarming’ an insult. And it’s like, ‘You fucking try it. It’s not that easy to please a crowd, to warm a heart.’”

CODA may not play well to every kind of viewer, or every kind of Oscar voter. It’s sweet: Ruby performs a song for a crowd, and her Deaf family begins to understand her passion as the people around them becomes palpably moved by the performance. That kind of sweet. Heder charts breakthroughs or familial catharsis, and while there are moments of tragedy, it’s not Tragedy. A movie this light on its feet may float away when it comes to Oscar “Best Picture” talk.

Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, and Marlee Matlin applauding in an auditorium in CODA Photo: Apple TV Plus


CODA’s peaks are the quieter scenes between Jones, Matlin, and Kotsur (who also scored an Oscar nomination for his work in the film). Each are paired off in different heart-to-hearts, and the way Heder’s script dips between speaking, sign, and silence hits hard.

But so do the moments of straight up comedy — months after seeing CODA, I am still haunted by the scene where Ruby arrives home early from school, only to hear Jackie and Frank making sweet, loud love without a clue who can hear them. And the way to stop it would be to walk in and tap them on the shoulder. Dear God.


CODA is currently available to stream on Apple TV Plus. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.

The rest of the series:

Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Why The Power of the Dog deserves to win Best Picture
Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture
Why Belfast deserves to win Best Picture
Why Nightmare Alley deserves to win Best Picture
Why King Richard deserves to win Best Picture
Why Dune deserves to win Best Picture
Why Licorice Pizza deserves to win Best Picture
Why Drive My Car deserves to win Best Picture

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