When “CODA” had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it didn’t get thunderous applause or a standing ovation from the crowd.

But it was a massive crowd-pleaser.

The festival in Park City, Utah, had gone completely virtual for the first time in its 40-plus year history due to the pandemic. There wasn’t an in-person premiere or red carpet event to generate buzz.

But “CODA” spoke for itself.

The film, which is about the hearing daughter of deaf parents who is torn between pursuing her passion for singing and sticking with the family’s fishing business, swept the major awards at Sundance. It became the first movie to win all three top prizes in the U.S. Dramatic category, Variety reported.

And unlike the 2014 award-winning French film it is based on, “CODA” director Sian Heder actually cast deaf actors in her film.

“I hope that this opens the door to people getting that audiences want to see these kinds of stories,” Heder said while accepting the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. “And I hope that this means that more stories that center deaf characters and characters with disabilities get put front and center because clearly people want to respond to that.”

“CODA” also set a festival record when Apple Studios won an intense bidding war, purchasing the film’s distribution rights for $25 million — the highest Sundance offer in history, Variety reported.

Now, the coming-of-age drama has made history by being the first Sundance film to win an Oscar for best picture.


‘CODA’ caused a history-making upset at the Oscars

“CODA” was described as “a little-engine-that-could underdog story,” a film that could potentially cause an upset at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony.

The Netflix movie “The Power of the Dog” was considered the major contender to win the best picture award, but “CODA” — which had a limited theatrical release in the U.S. (about 100 theaters) along with its Apple TV+ debut — gained some last-minute momentum and has now won the Oscar for best picture.

Last month, it pulled off a big “surprise win” at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, securing the outstanding cast award, the Washington Post reported.

“This SAG Cast award can energize an Oscar campaign, which is what happened when ‘Parasite’ took the same prize two years ago and rode it all the way to best picture,” Pete Hammond wrote for Deadline. “The sheer enthusiasm and excitement generated by that win in the audience that night at SAG was palpable, and so tonight was this win for ‘CODA.’”

“CODA” is the first best picture to come from a streaming service and the first best picture out of Sundance.

Prior to “Coda,” several Sundance films had landed Oscar nominations for best picture over the years, but none had claimed the major award (in 1994, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” lost out to “Forrest Gump,” while Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” beat out “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported).

Related
How this University of Utah grad became a major Oscar contender

Now “CODA” has become the first film to do it.

Beyond the awards, though, the film — which features a mostly deaf cast — is proving to be groundbreaking in terms of representation.


‘We are not costumes to put on’

When Marlee Matlin got cast in “CODA,” one of the first things she did was fight an industry-inspired push to have a well-known hearing actor take on the role of her husband in the film. Until Sunday night, Matlin was the only deaf person in Academy Award history to win an Oscar, which she won for her role in the 1986 film “Children of a Lesser God,” the Washington Post reported.

“I put my foot down and said, ‘If you do, I’m just out, that’s it. I can’t see any actor putting on the costume of being deaf. We are not costumes to put on, not any longer,” Matlin told USA Today. “I’ve seen so many times in this industry where hearing actors take on the role of deaf characters. We’ve had enough of that. It’s time for myself and other deaf actors to be able to speak up and say, enough is enough. We are here. Our talents are valid.”

That led to Troy Kotsur, a longtime member of the National Theater of the Deaf, joining the cast. On Sunday night, Kotsur won an Academy Award for best supporting actor and is now the second deaf person to win an Oscar, sharing the distinction with his “CODA” co-star.

Related
How a deaf Utah actress impacted the frightening sounds of ‘A Quiet Place’
'A Quiet Place' star and Utah native Millicent Simmonds says the film is a win for the deaf community

And while recent films like “A Quiet Place,” “The Sound of Metal” and “Eternals” have helped bring deaf characters into the mainstream, “CODA” — a movie where roughly half of the dialogue is in American Sign Language — stands apart with a cast that is mostly deaf.

“I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but I’ve witnessed a change and I’m thrilled,” Matlin told USA Today. “I want to see us get to the point where deaf actors can carry a film, or a series. Not relegated to the background, like we’ve ticked this box.”

But although the cast is mostly deaf, “CODA” isn’t just about deafness. There’s an overarching theme of chasing a dream, even when those around you may not understand. In the film, Ruby (Emilia Jones) — who is the one and only hearing member of her family — wants to attend the Berklee School of Music, but her family cannot hear her talent and, therefore, doesn’t understand her passion for music.

“It’s the ultimate choice by Sian (the director) to represent our point of view as deaf people when we go to things like concerts,” Matlin told Deadline. “It also conveys a message as parents watching their daughter do something that’s so completely outside of their sphere of understanding. She’s doing it because she loves it. Yet we can’t identify with it or connect with it. It’s an examination of the journey of what is initially fear, especially from the perspective of a mother, to puzzlement, to eventually something positive.”

“CODA” is a major move forward for Deaf culture. But it is also an “affirming family drama” that is the “worthiest winner of the Academy Award this year,” wrote Cath Clarke for The Guardian.

“In the past, Hollywood rewarded non-disabled actors giving sensitive portrayals of disability with awards love,” Clarke continued. “A win for ‘CODA’ would show that movies can reflect our changing world.”