Helen Hunt will probably nab a second Oscar for her supporting role, Cheryl, played with absolute breathtaking compassion, grace, nuance and powerful subversion of every misogynistic caricature one could imagine. Her performance alone is reason enough to travel and see this. Through the years, one can see how Hunt chooses her films slowly, carefully and wisely, and it is absolutely clear to me why she wanted to do this- her role has the charm of a scorpion. She stings your intellect into cessation, enlivening your emotional world. Her words and relational caring are heartbreaking, even as she makes you laugh in delirium at an artistic bravery rarely seen among artists, especially actors. Perhaps among such luminaries like Brando, Day-Lewis, Hepburn, Streep. But not many others.
Surrounding the story's naturalistic, almost inchoate humor which tinges each scene of heart-wrenching beauty and meaning is one of the most talented actors working today: John Hawkes. He will most likely also grab an Oscar nomination. William H. Macy is an additional treasure; he turns in a subtle portrayal of a Catholic priest imbued with a genuine love of caring, desiring to help Hawkes' character thrive within the physical limitations of a polio virus survivor.
Within the film exists heavy religious imagery seamlessly woven between the narrative architecture: from Jewish baptism to Catholic iconography, philosophical meanderings to poetic waxing, the story never settles for being typical or mundane, but rather imbues itself with the soul of a saint striving to alleviate the bite and excoriating pain of life. Each actor helps paint this subtle, masterful and accomplished story.
Sadly, the harsh realities created by physical incapacity are a subject too often ignored, swept under the rug or just plain forgotten by Hollywood. Helen Hunt further impressed me in that one of her earlier and most critically acclaimed films, "The Waterdance" (1992, co-starring Eric Stoltz), also explores this subject: the sexual lives of the physically disabled. This is a topic about which she must care, for it keeps coming back to her work as if meant to be, as if she were a veritable physical vessel of love and understanding. She is, in fact, a conduit of grace.
Helen Hunt's performance is so simultaneously understated and transcendent this reviewer cannot help think, turned by the religious symbolism within the film, of the Biblical figural archetype of Mary Magdalene. Except, within this story, there is no prostitution (which, as we learn, is an allegory from which Hunt's Cheryl quickly disabuses both Hawkes and the audience.) Hunt rather represents a femininity scorned by her past's community, yet now finding meaningful help engendering sexual satisfaction, self-efficacy and life change among those in need of intimate therapy. If Mary Magdalene represented, for Christ, feminine companionship even amidst a "sinful" past, Helen Hunt is the arch through which Hawk passes on his way to a fuller, more whole world. In the end, Hawkes' character can be seen as a type of Christ figure, in some ways.
This film is like a beaming purity of emotion that roots itself in your soul. Sex is a primal energy- in leads us to relationship with another. This film is strengthened by that energy- but please don't see this as a cynical analysis of Hollywood once again using sex to sell. Rather, this film uses sex to show love, growth, spiritual transformation and physical healing. Lewin has crafted a veritable mirror to reflect beauty, connection and love back to even the most hardened, pessimistic, sardonic and misanthropic spirit or painful body. A film to seek out!