Fourteen months ago, a small independent film with a largely unknown cast and an Oscar winner in a smaller supporting role debuted to critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, winning top prizes and a hefty payday from Apple.

The grand jury prize winner was expected to help launch the second wave of subscriptions to AppleTV+, a burgeoning streaming service fighting an uphill battle with stalwarts like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for viewership.

Critical success continued when CODA, director Sian Heder’s heartwarming family coming-of-age dramedy, arrived on the streamer last August, but didn’t seem to draw attention in the same way from casual audiences.

Now there’s not really an excuse for ardent cinephiles to miss CODA despite being exclusive to a secondary streamer as the film took home three Academy Awards including Best Picture Sunday evening during a very congested ceremony that may continue to overshadow this smaller feature.

Adapted from the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier, Heder’s drama stars Emilia Jones as Ruby, a CODA or “child of deaf adults,” who longs to pursue her passion in music but fears abandoning her parents as the family’s fishing business is threatened.

It’s the first feature film to debut at Sundance and go on to win Best Picture, and in large part, the underdog win can largely be attributed to the film’s terrific cast of predominantly deaf/non-hearing members that provide the humor, heart, and passion of CODA.

Troy Kotsur rightly earned his Best Supporting Actor Oscar with a truly layered turn as Ruby’s father Frank, who wonderfully portrays anger and frustration over struggles with the business in one scene and can effortlessly wash that all away to carry the film’s funniest moments as one-half of an awkward parental unit with Marlee Matlin.

Kotsur’s Oscar moment late in the film in a scene opposite Jones where the two are able to bond over music despite their hearing differences certainly propelled CODA to its win and it’s a genuinely heartwarming moment.

Jones also has terrific chemistry with Daniel Durant, who plays Ruby’s brother Leo, and it’s Durant’s brash attitude in being the overlooked older brother that helps solidify the terrific family drama.

CODA suffers somewhat from attempting to bridge together two separate films into one and the quality balance doesn’t quite matchup between the two, which makes its Best Adapted Screenplay win somewhat befuddling. Perhaps voters keyed in on the 40 percent of the script in American Sign Language, which held most of the emotional moments that pulled on voters’ heartstrings.

The core of the film, where Heder really shines, is in the family drama with Ruby’s struggles to become her own person outside of interpreting for her father and brother for their fishing business. When CODA leans on its deaf cast members, the film is engaging, unique and poignant.

There’s a secondary storyline that runs largely parallel to the family dynamic that doesn’t particularly mesh well until the final moments of the film. Ruby’s love of singing and involvement with her school choir often feels like an overextended episode of Glee, which is referenced in the movie. Giving this plotline equal weight in the running time – especially with an unneeded love interest – makes CODA artificially long at nearly two hours and separates viewers from the best parts of the film.

Winning Best Picture gives CODA the higher profile needed to draw audiences in who otherwise would never make an effort to seek it out. But it’s disappointing to see films with greater technical merit and artistic vision not rewarded more for their boldness and risk-taking.

CODA is far from an unworthy winner and its warmth, heart and uplifting narrative make it the crowd-pleaser that any cinephile would enjoy on a casual Friday night at home.

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