‘CODA’ Dominates Sundance Award Ceremony

Apple+ buys heartwarming deaf family drama for $25 million

“How you doing, stressed-out shut-ins?” said Patton Oswalt from an undisclosed location. Officiating at the 2021 Sundance Award ceremonies, the comic actor capped a surreal six days in which the Utah-based film festival shared its ferociously indie programming around the country and throughout the world. Hard to imagine this genie going back into the bottle: those analog days of exclusive in-person festgoing are now officially numbered, even if the pandemic miraculously abates before 2022.

The lineup was a bit slimmer, the premieres a little less starry, but the glam-deficient film festival still managed to unearth surprises and crowdpleasers. Towering over all the others: raucous family drama and multiple prize winner CODA, which debuted on opening night and created enough online buzz in the following days to garner a jaw-dropping and Sundance-record-shattering $25 million distribution deal with Apple TV+. You can’t blame ski-resort altitude giddiness on that wallet-busting bid, although Covid Life probably had a fair amount to do with the streamer’s calculus. Besides, big-ticket film purchases are rounding errors for the tech behemoth’s bottom line.

Still, Apple probably knew what a sensation the film would have been had it debuted in Park City’s biggest venue, the 2,000-seat Eccles. Watching it online, you could imagine the roaring laughter and sentimental sniffles punctuating the heartwarming/heart-wrenching story of a deaf family whose hearing teenage daughter yearns to be a professional singer.

The film’s title stands for Child of Deaf Adults, a moniker invoked a total of four times on awards night. CODA won the Grand Jury Prize in Dramatic Competition, the Audience Award, Best Director for Sian Heder, and Best Ensemble for the cast, among them deaf actors including Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. The CODA posse reacted with disbelief when they popped up on Zoom for the first of what turned out to be a quartet of acceptance appearances. “I’m handless!” joked Troy Kotsur, who plays the film’s father. Heder’s family joined the at-home celebration, with one of her kids shooting off a confetti cannon in their living room.

Oswalt kept the 90-minute awards show moving right along, no small order for a ceremony bereft of applause but impressively glitch-free. The comic wise-cracked into the void, name-checking indie stalwarts like Steve Buscemi and the Coen brothers during his myriad riffs, invoking a naked Steven Soderbergh at one point and accusing Lupita Nyong’o of trashing a snow mobile.

Also in the winner’s circle: below-the-radar journeyman Clifton Collins Jr. He won Best Actor for his low-key devastating title performance in Jockey, a lyrical elegy to an aging horseman who gets one more chance at glory on the race track. Sony Pictures Classics snapped up Jockey, no surprise for a company that’s masterminded Oscar wins for everyone from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett.

Most endearing win went to Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Summer of Soul, which nabbed the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award for Best Documentary. Unlike the other couch-potato winners, Questlove accepted his award while in a car on the way to his gig at The Tonight Show. “I didn’t even know this was a contest, yo!” he said with delight. Clearly overwhelmed by the honor and by the blizzard-blanketed Manhattan streets, Questlove repeated his appreciation for everyone who helped bring his passion project to fruition. “This is beyond dreams coming true,” he said.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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