Thursday, March 23, 2023

Could ‘CODA’ and Marlee Matlin Bring Joyful Storytelling and Family-Friendly Movies Back to the Oscar Race?

One year after “Sound of Metal” made a significant impact at the Oscars, Sian Heder’s “CODA” shows itself as an outstanding example for representation in the disability community, and could be one of the heartwarming family films of the year that finds its way to Academy attention.

Distributed by Apple TV Plus, which bought the film at the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $25 million, “CODA” is bowing in theaters and on the streaming platform. Following excellent reception and feedback at an official Academy screening last week, and a hearty 96% score on Rotten Tomatoes, Apple could have one of its strongest awards contenders to date. Last year the streamer nabbed its first two nominations, for “Wolfwalkers” in animated feature and “Greyhound” in sound. With Heder’s feature, along with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and Todd Haynes’ documentary “The Velvet Underground,” Apple could have its best shot at major recognition yet.

The film is an English-language remake of the French-language film “La Famille Bélier” (2014) and tells the story of Ruby, a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) who is the only hearing person in her deaf family. When their fishing business is threatened, Ruby finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music or abandoning her family.

It’s a straightforward family tale that doesn’t challenge the viewer, but does manage to pack a considerable amount of joy in its 117-minute runtime. Reminiscent of August releases such as “The Help,” the movie feels like one that, under pre-pandemic circumstances, could have become a crossover hit at the box office. The limited theatrical run, however, won’t lead to the kind of box office numbers that would have bolstered the narrative for its awards prospects. Instead, it will rely on word-of-mouth from audiences, critics and other AMPAS members. Nevertheless, with the Oscars back to a guaranteed 10 films in best picture, a film like “CODA” is firmly in the conversation.

But what other honors could be in its awards cards?

Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin is the film’s ace in the hole. The 55-year-old actor holds the record as the youngest to ever win in lead actress, for Randa Haines’ “Children of a Lesser God” (1986) at 21. Her film was also the first best picture nominee to be directed by a woman (Haines was snubbed for directing). She’ll be a contender for her second Oscar nomination in supporting actress for her turn as Jackie, a mother fearful of life without her daughter and a constant sex magnet for her loving husband Frank, played wonderfully by Troy Kotsur. If nominated, she would be among a list of actors with the greatest gap between nominations at 36 years, which would put her past Bruce Dern when he was nominated for “Coming Home” (1978) and “Nebraska” (2013).

It should be noted that of the four acting races, the 50,000-foot view looks as if the best supporting actress will be the most competitive and stacked of them all this year.

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Emilia Jones in “CODA”
Seacia Pavao

The young and soulful Emilia Jones churns in a tender portrayal of Ruby and is undeniably one of the movie’s highlights. She steers the ship with an authenticity that could have easily gone the way of annoyance under any other actress in the role. The best actress race will likely be too competitive for her to crack the lineup, but at this point in the calendar year, she would be one of the leading contenders based on what’s been released thus far. Of course, this all depends on what else drops in the coming months.

For writer and director Heder, her run for a nomination could be difficult in both adapted screenplay and directing, especially given the movie’s lighter tone. However, what will keep her in the conversation is the disheartening truth that this season isn’t as robust with female filmmakers as last year. Coming off a year that included Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”), the bench doesn’t seem as deep this year. Zhao is taking a seemingly unconventional crack at the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Eternals,” with some other presumed contenders like Jane Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), Halle Berry (“Bruised”), and Eva Husson (“Mothering Sunday”) eyeing attention.

Another glowing example for Latino representation we’re witnessing this year, Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez tackles the tough but inspirational music teacher Bernardo with ease. Depending on how big the voters go for the film, the acting branch could get behind him. The educator with a heart of gold has worked for nominees like Edward James Olmos (“Stand and Deliver”), Richard Dreyfus (“Mr. Holland’s Opus”) and Robin Williams (“Dead Poets Society”); however, those were for leading performances. Even actors like Denzel Washington (“The Great Debaters”), Morgan Freeman (“Lean on Me”) and Michelle Pfeiffer (“Dangerous Minds”), despite delivering noteworthy performances, have had trouble getting Oscar love.

Looking for momentum in the artisan categories will be tough, with no flashy cinematography or makeup and hairstyling for branch members to sink their teeth into. The film can hope to roll the dice for recognition in editing (Geraud Brisson) and original score (Marius de Vries), but honestly, they’re still longshots.

The film uses real-life deaf actors to portray their characters, offering great representation for the disability community. To date, only two disabled actors have been recognized by the Academy – best supporting actor winner Harold Russell for 1947’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” and Matlin. However, over 50 actors and actresses have been nominated or won Oscars for portraying characters with disabilities.

“CODA” is produced by Philippe Rousselet, Fabrice Gianfermi and Patrick Wachsberger.


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