EFG Magazine

By Steven McIntosh Entertainment reporter

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Watch: Coda star and Oscar nominee inspires deaf children to dream big

Statistically, Coda should not be such a strong contender to win best picture at Sunday's Oscars.

The Apple TV film has just three nominations, but is heading into the 94th Academy Awards as the dark horse which has continued to perform above expectations.

An acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, Coda tells the story of the hearing daughter of a deaf family, who has to balance the demands of helping them in their daily lives with her own ambitions to be a singer.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 and released to streaming audiences the following August, the Sian Heder-directed film has slowly but surely found a devoted audience and become a word-of-mouth hit.

Ahead of Sunday's Oscars, the movie finds itself as the main best picture challenger to Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, a slow but respected Netflix movie which has been the presumptive frontrunner for weeks.

While some of the acting categories seem wrapped up, having a genuine two-horse race for best picture has injected a shot of energy into this awards season at the last minute.

"It's official: We've got a sprint to the finish," wrote Vanity Fair's David Canfield. "It's a race for the history books. The showdown to be the first streaming service to win best picture," agreed Variety's Clayton Davis.

Emilia Jones, Daniel Durant, Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin in the (C)Apple TV+ new film : CODA Image source, Alamy

Coda is an English-language remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, directed by Éric Lartigau. Following its box office success in France, producer Philippe Rousselet approached Massachusetts-born filmmaker Heder about the possibility of adapting the story for a US audience.

But getting it from the early stages of development to its current status as a best picture favourite has not been an easy journey.

After taking the reins, the first person Heder cast was Marlee Matlin, who became the first deaf actor to win an Oscar in 1986 for her performance in Children of a Lesser God and has since appeared in The L Word and The West Wing.

But once Matlin was on board, producers were faced with a significant hurdle. The studio that initially agreed to finance the film asked for big-named stars to appear in it. The absence of high-profile deaf actors meant Heder was under pressure to hire hearing actors with more box office appeal to play deaf characters.

After some discussion, Heder and Matlin refused to proceed with the film unless they could cast actors who were deaf in real life. "I had three deaf roles that I wanted to be played by deaf actors," Heder told BBC culture editor Katie Razzall. "And so there wasn't really the opportunity to plug in a bunch of movie stars."

As a result, the studio "ultimately didn't make it", she recalled. "And then the movie sat on the shelf for six months and I was heartbroken and I thought it was dead, but I never questioned that."

Marlee Matlin at the Independent Spirit Awards Image source, Reuters

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Marlee Matlin, pictured at this month's Independent Spirit Awards, was the first deaf actor to win an Oscar

The film ended up being financed independently and Heder got the cast she wanted - with Troy Kotsur, who had appeared in Scrubs and CSI, joining to play Matlin's partner.

"It's not often you see more than one deaf actor on screen," noted Kotsur. "And so it was a rare opportunity to show what conversational ASL [American Sign Language] is like around the dinner table.

"Many deaf people have felt like they can relate to the film, as well as Codas, children of deaf adults. I have Coda daughter and so many of my deaf friends also have Coda children and it's very hard for them to explain their process going through life having deaf parents."

Daniel Durant joined the cast to play the couple's son, but Ruby - the family's hearing daughter - proved the hardest part to cast. "To find that girl was a massive search," Heder told the BBC at the Baftas.

"I needed someone who was going to sign fluently, who was going to sing, who was going to act her ass off and carry every scene. At one point my casting director said I was looking for a unicorn."

But the search continued until the team found British actress Emilia Jones (the daughter of singer and TV presenter Aled), who took singing lessons and ASL classes for nine months in preparation for the role.

"I had so much to learn for this movie," Jones told the BBC's Colin Paterson. "The film is about a culture and a family that's rarely seen on screen.

"And it's giving people an insight into a culture. I knew nothing about deaf culture before I went into this movie. But it's also teaching people that no matter what language you speak, or where you're from, love is love."

Amy Forsyth (L), Daniel Durant, Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur Image source, Apple TV+

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Amy Forsyth (L) plays Ruby's friend, Daniel Durant plays Ruby's brother, and Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur play her parents

With financing secured and the cast finally in place, Coda was filmed in Gloucester, Massachusetts over the summer of 2019. "We were a very scrappy production," Heder recalled. "This was an independent and low budget movie.

"We had no resources, I think my hope with this movie was 'please let it sell, please let someone want it and distribute it and get it out in the world. And please let me make another movie'. That's where I was coming from."

With hindsight, Heder had nothing to worry about. Coda received its world premiere at a virtual Sundance festival, debuting to warm reviews from critics. It was quickly snapped up by Apple for $25m (£19m) - a record for the festival but a relative bargain considering what it has gone on to do.

"We have now become a part of Hollywood, but this was this was definitely kind of an outsider film," Heder reflected.

Coda is one of several recent films to have featured deaf characters - following Sound of Metal, Marvel's Eternals (which has a deaf superhero) and A Quiet Place parts one and two.

Sian Heder, winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay award for the film CODA, poses in the press room during the 75th BAFTA Film Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Britain, 13 February 2022 Image source, EPA

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Sian Heder was a surprise winner of best adapted screenplay at this month's Bafta Film Awards

However, Coda wasn't loved by everyone. Deaf critic Liam O'Dell suggested viewers are given the narrative that deaf people "have to settle for the inaccessible environment around them in order for a hearing individual, Ruby, to have any real sense of fulfilment".

"Coda shines completely the wrong light on how to tackle inaccessibility, in a negligence which is both harmful and dangerous for an impressionable hearing audience," he added.

Jemina Edwards, who is part of Coda UK Ireland and whose parents are both deaf, told Metro: "It was never going to be a perfect film that encapsulates everyone's experiences because every Coda has got a different experience.

"Some bits I found a bit uncomfortable, it felt like it was aimed more at a hearing audience than a deaf or coda audience."

But despite some misgivings, Coda is now the film to beat at the Oscars following recognition at several precursor ceremonies.

Generally, the Academy tends to give its top honour to dramatic films - something like The Power of the Dog traditionally would be seen as best picture material.

Coda's feel-good nature makes it an unusual competitor in the Oscars race, but even with all the added buzz and publicity over the last few weeks, it still has a mountain to climb.

Emilia Jones in Coda Image source, Apple TV+

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Emilia Jones plays Ruby who is struggling to choose between her family's fishing business and going to music school

The film has only three nominations in total - best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor (a dead-cert win for Kotsur) and best picture.

This would not normally be enough to propel a film to a best picture win. You have to go back to 1932's Grand Hotel to find the last time a film won best picture with fewer than four overall nominations.

There may not have been a huge amount of love within the Academy for Coda when the nominations were announced in early February. But as voters began to catch up with the best picture nominees they'd missed, suddenly it became very popular indeed.

Unlike the other categories, best picture is decided by a preferential ballot. The Power of the Dog is a hugely divisive film, and while it will have a lot of first-place votes, there will also likely be many Academy members ranking it in last place.

That means a film like Coda, which will have likely picked up a fair number of second, third and fourth-place votes, could come through the middle as the consensus choice and score the win.

Director Sian Heder and cast members of CODA Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Emilia Jones, Marlee Matlin and Eugenio Derbez pose backstage after winning Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 28th Screen Actors Guild Awards, in Santa Monica, California, U.S., February 27, 2022 Image source, Reuters

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Coda's experienced a surge in momentum after winning the top prize at February's Screen Actors Guild Awards

Jones has described the last few months as an "amazing ride", adding: "I feel very lucky and grateful that people have been so nice about the movie so it means we can keep promoting it."

Asked by the BBC's Sophie Long what advice she has given her castmates going through awards season for the first time, Matlin said: "I've said to them, to the younger cast in particular, to embrace everything that comes their way.

"People are going to be offering their congratulations, they're going to want a piece of them.... just breathe it in and enjoy the journey to the max. Because after it's all done, everyone moves on to the next thing. I just say, have a good time.

"And also," she adds, "I want to work together again. I hope we do, for sure."

The Oscars take place on Sunday 27 March.