‘CODA’ Has an Army of Detractors, but It’s a Best Picture Winner with a Legacy (Column)

Sometimes, it comes down to one very simple thing — and by it, I don’t just mean the best picture race. I mean that thing we call movies.

At the movies, people want to be moved. They also want to be thrilled, staggered, transfixed, seduced, immersed, mystified, mesmerized, drawn outside of themselves. There are movies that can rewire your way of seeing. And the cinema is an endlessly evolving form that has given us some of the greatest works of art of the last century. There are years when the movies that win the Academy Award for best picture are timeless hallmarks of cinema. “The Godfather.” “All About Eve.” “Lawrence of Arabia.” “Midnight Cowboy.” “The Silence of the Lambs.” “On the Waterfront.” “Schindler’s List.” “Gone With the Wind.” “Titanic.”

But not always. Sometimes, the film that wins the Academy Award for best picture is not an indelible piece of cinema, yet it’s a rapt and heartrending movie. And the key to that is how moving it is.

Sian Heder’s “CODA” is a film that moves a great many of the people who see it a great deal (including me), yet you’d hardly know that from all the backbiting about it in recent weeks on Twitter. I raise the issue because just as “CODA’s” Oscar triumph signifies that we’re in a whole new ballgame of an era, where streaming is the paradigmatic new normal (which potentially scrambles the very metaphysic of “movies,” since that word no longer means a thing you watch on a screen big enough to be larger than life), an accompanying shift is that the conversation about movies, to the extent that one still exists, is now driven by social media. And “CODA,” in that arena, has been treated as a “Hallmark movie,” a tearjerker of maximum anti-cachet. It may, in its square way, be the uncoolest Oscar winner in many decades. But that doesn’t mean it’s unworthy.

Why is the heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism of “CODA” an affront to so many who experienced the old-fashioned sentimentality of Spielberg’s “West Side Story” as a high-end act of art? Few would be squawking if Spielberg’s film had won best picture. But “CODA” isn’t a movie that deserves to be squawked at either. There’s too much flow and exactitude to its performances, too much intensity to its interactions, too many nuts and bolts to its apprehension of working-class economic distress, too many notes of honest pain woven into its soaring melody of uplift. The film may not be cinema, but it’s like an irresistible pop single. It hooks you and pulls you along, it stirs and opens your emotions — and by the end you feel something rich enough to be called real.

That it’s a best picture winner about a family of four, three of whom are deaf and played by deaf actors, certainly lends it a place in film history. So does the fact that it’s not only the first streaming film to win but the first Sundance movie. (So much better this than “Little Miss Sunshine”!) Yet if “CODA,” beyond those firsts, still seems something of an anomaly of an Oscar movie, that may be because it belongs to a particular category of best picture winner that I would call, for lack of a better word, small, with no pejorative connotation. Because if you look back over the nearly 100 years of Oscar winners, some are medium-sized (like “It Happened One Night” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “A Beautiful Mind”), the majority are big and grand, but almost none of them are small.

Yet a tiny handful are. The first “small” Oscar winner was “Marty,” in 1955, and if you go back and watch it today, it’s startling to consider that that luscious trifle about an awkward, lovelorn Bronx butcher — the whole thing is basically the story of one date — didn’t just win best picture; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (How times have changed.) Then there’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” a cozy liberal message movie in the form of an exquisitely acted two-hander. Is “CODA” as good as those films? I find it to be every bit as moving and resonant, and as memorably acted.

Troy Kotsur’s Oscar-winning performance is the film’s gruffly addled heartbeat. It’s a different flavor of great acting, because so much of it comes through gesture, and Kotsur, in scene after scene, makes sign language speak louder than sound. He makes Frank Rossi an elemental figure, one who doesn’t just cuss a blue streak but speaks with a cussed, infernal passion — he’s like an irascible, pot-smoking Hemingway with credit-card debt, his eyes molten pools of raging sorrow.

The movie, too, is elemental, at least at its best. Sure, you could say that when Emilia Jones’ Ruby and the boy she has a crush on are rehearsing their duet on “You’re All I Need to Get By,” the situation is a little too on-the-nose romantic. There are other plot points that fall into neat slots. But when Ruby, facing Eugenio Derbez’s tough-love dandy of a music teacher, says, “I’ve never done anything without my family before,” a tear may spring to your eye for the first of many times, because the movie is capturing what it is to grow up and leave the family you love, and in doing that to leave a part of you behind. Marlee Matlin’s Jackie tells Ruby that when Ruby was a baby at the hospital and they were giving her a hearing test, Jackie prayed that she was deaf so the two wouldn’t be estranged — a confession that rips you apart. And the domestic infighting, with the characters shouting at each other in sign language, lets us experience the tumult of family life — the rules, the bitter jokes, the intimacy of irritation — as movies rarely do.

So no, this is not a Hallmark movie. It’s a film about love, about the assorted loyalties that spring from love and are brought into conflict with each other. In my review of “CODA,” written during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, I said, “I wouldn’t want every independent film to hit you over the heart as squarely as ‘CODA’ does, yet I wouldn’t want to live in a world where we don’t have movies like this one.” “CODA,” a bittersweet pop anthem, lifts the spirit. It captures, in a readable and accessible form, something timeless and essential about relationships. And it moves you. If it’s possible for a group hug to be profound, the one at the end of “CODA” is. I wouldn’t want every best picture winner to be like this one, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world where a best picture winner couldn’t be a movie just like “CODA.”

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