‘CODA’ could follow in footsteps of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ on the road to Oscars

Back in January of 2006, an unassuming indie film about a struggling family — and the young daughter who brings everyone together during a triumphant moment of competition — exploded out of the Sundance Film Festival with one of the biggest distribution deals to that point in history. Upon its release later that summer, the movie captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike and went on to win numerous awards, including best ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and top honors at the Producers Guild Awards. In fact, while “Little Miss Sunshine” would eventually lose Best Picture at the Academy Awards to Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” the argument could be made that the four-time Oscar nominee was the runner-up choice based on how it performed at the precursors and during the ceremony itself. “Little Miss Sunshine” won two top awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin.

Now, 15 years and a massive Sundance deal later, is “CODA” — a family drama with comedic elements about a teenage girl who brings her family together during a singing audition — poised to follow the same path to eventual awards glory?

Released in August and still available on Apple TV+ (the film came out almost 15 years to the day “Little Miss Sunshine” made its wide-release debut on the way to more than $100 million in worldwide box office sales), “CODA” blew the doors off the competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and a Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award — as well as Best Director honors for filmmaker Sian Heder. Its reviews have been uniformly strong: on Rotten Tomatoes, both the critical and audiences scores for “CODA” top 95 percent. Although traditional success metrics are no longer in play with a simultaneous streaming and in-theater release (“CODA” will not gross $100 million at the box office), anecdotal evidence suggests “CODA” is one of the most-liked films of the year: just browse reviews on Letterboxd or search “CODA” on Twitter to see rave after rave.

It should be of little surprise then that “CODA” has some budding Oscar bona fides. Despite its release earlier in the year, before numerous top contenders made splashy debuts, “CODA” is still hanging strong in the Best Picture category; the Gold Derby combined odds have the film in ninth place. If that holds, the film would land among the nominees next year as the Academy Awards expands its Best Picture roster to a set 10 movies. (Previously, anywhere between five and 10 films could receive Best Picture nominations based on vote totals.) Heder is ranked 12th in the Best Director category, while star Emilia Jones is 13th in the Best Actress race. Former Oscar winner and co-star Marlee Matlin is currently sixth in the Best Supporting Actress category, while Heder’s screenplay, adapted from a French film, sits in third place. Then there’s Troy Kotsur, who is sitting in seventh place in the Best Supporting Actor race, and has gotten precursor bumps from the Gotham Awards, Golden Globe Awards, and Critics Choice Awards. A scenario where “CODA” matches “Little Miss Sunshine” with four nominations, including Best Picture, feels entirely plausible.

Why such confidence? The rooting factor: “CODA” is an underdog story about Ruby (Jones), the child of deaf adults (or the acronym CODA, which gives the film its title), who harbors a passion for singing that could land her at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. But that dream sits in stark contrast with her reality, where she helps her father (Kotsur), mother (Matlin), and brother (Daniel Durant) — all of whom are Deaf — with their fishing operation and serves as the family’s main interpreter. It’s a fairly straightforward story — part “Little Miss Sunshine,” part “Good Will Hunting” — with not just an incredible payoff but characters whose points of view come from the heart. “CODA” is a film without true villains: it focuses on kind-hearted people who don’t always agree with each other on the best outcome. That makes it easy to cheer not just for Ruby (Jones, while a longshot for a nomination is a remarkable breakthrough), but her parents. Matlin (who is the only Deaf actor to ever win an Oscar) and Kotsur are each given knockout emotional scenes in the film’s second half. The respect “CODA” shows each character in the film’s winning ensemble — which also includes Eugenio Derbez as Ruby’s detail-obsessed choir teacher — positions it as an early favorite to replicate the “Little Miss Sunshine” success at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

“We were like a family,” Jones explained to Gold Derby this year. “Marlee and Troy took me under their wing, and me and Daniel would constantly talk about all sorts. They were all so patient and I just fell in love with the language and I fell in love with them, and I’ve never felt so close to people ever in my life. It was such an incredible experience for me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

Audiences likely agree: the success of “CODA” relies not on one single performer but the group as a whole. It’s an awards formula that has worked for years, from “Little Miss Sunshine” and “The Help” to “Parasite” and “Minari.”

“There were a lot of tears shed,” Heder said of wrapping up the film. “You make movies and you come together and you bond and then move on, but this — it did feel like we were a family.” It’s a good thing they’re all so close: it’s a long while between now and March 27, 2022, the date for next year’s Academy Awards. At least they’ll have plenty of time to enjoy each others’ company.

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