From the title on down to the story and performances “Miracle Season” is a film that trumpets its uplifting, inspirational point of view. The story may be rooted in tragedy but this is a tale of perseverance.
In 2011 the Iowa City West High School volleyball team were champions starting a new season. Team captain Caroline ‘Line’ Found (Danika Yarosh) is a popular student and daughter of the kindly Dr. Ernie Found (William Hurt). “She reached out to everyone,” says coach Kathy Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), “strangers, opponents teachers, even lowly Coach. To Line they all meant the same thing, friends.” When Line is killed in an accident the team, especially best friend Kelly (Erin Moriarty), must work through their grief if they want to “Live Like Line” and take the state championship.
“Miracle Season” is exactly what you think it will be, a respectful movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s barely a rough edge here anywhere, except in the underwritten script. Characters are inherently decent, inspired to be better people by the memory of their late friend. Good messages all round but it doesn’t really make for great drama. The spectre of Hallmark hangs heavy over every scene.
What’s left is Oscar winner Hunt as the tough love coach pumping her fist, mouthing the word “yes” as her team gains confidence on the court and lots of talk about winning for Line. Director Sean McNamara, who mined similar territory with Hunt in the film “Soul Surfer,” is unafraid to pluck heartstrings, often steering the story into motivational melodrama. It’s likely some tears will be wrung from the easy emotion on display, but “Miracle Season,” for all its good intentions, is a simply a generic sports movie.
When most people think of Helen Hunt they think of Jaime Buchman, the urbane New Yorker she played for 162 episodes on “Mad About You.” In her new film Ride, which she also wrote and directed, she plays an urbane, if somewhat more uptight riff on Jaime. She’s a hotshot New York City book editor who gives up everything to be near her son in California and to enjoy the California sun.
A-type Jackie (Hunt) is a stickler for details. A high-powered book editor, she is the kind of person who corrects your grammar and shoots you a withering glance while doing so. Her son Angelo (Brenton Thwaites) is an aspiring writer who is slowly being crushed by the pressure of being related to one of the city’s top literary figures. To escape, he quits school and heads to Los Angeles to stay with his hippy-dippy dad (Robert Knepper). Jackie follows him to the coast, and in an unlikely twist, throws herself into surf culture in an attempt to connect with her son. With the help of her chauffeur (David Zayas) and surf instructor Ian (Luke Wilson) the trappings of her old life begin to melt away as it dawns on her that she has given her life to work and not her family.
“Hang Ten” Hunt’s second surfing film—the first, “Soul Surfer” was released in 2011—finds her with sturdy sea legs as a director, less so as a writer.
“Ride” has some interesting elements— Thwaites is suitably brooding as a son trying to make his own way in the world and the surfing scenes are shot with aplomb—but the three characters who occupy the bulk of screen time, Jackie, Ian and driver Ramon, are straight out of Central Casting. The performances are fine, but the character work is more suited to a sit com than the big screen. Of the three Ramon gets off the easiest, mostly staying in the background, existing primarily to act as a tour guide to Jackie’s fish-out-of-water routine. Jackie and Ian, however, are put through their paces front and center in a series of sit com style clichés meant to move the story forward. She laughs uncontrollably after smoking a joint, he suggests an unlikely (untrue and frankly, unsanitary) cure for a surfing injury.
It’s all perfectly amiable but also feels like we’ve seen it before. Comedy and drama butt heads in awkward transition to one another as Jackie flip flops from ridiculous behaviour to introspective resolve, often in the same scene. It’s meant, I guess, to add depth to the characters and situations but instead feels convenient and easy. For example, no one as career minded as Jackie is going to laugh uproariously after getting fired, even if they have just smoked a joint. Or, in this case, taken a cursory toke or two. It’s a bizarre way of presenting a major change in her life and doesn’t seem in character at all.
“Ride” isn’t a complete wipe-out, but it feels more VOD than big screen.
“The Sessions” should be the downer movie of the year. But the story of a severely disabled man who wants to explore his sexuality, before, as he says, his “use by” date, is funny, passionate and bawdy.
Based on the life of poet Mark O’Brien (played in the movie by John Hawkes) “The Sessions” sees a man who can’t move have a sexual awakening with some unlikely advice from his priest (William H. Macy) and the help of a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt).
“The Sessions” doesn’t reinvent the narrative wheel, things progress pretty much as you imagine they might, but as obvious as some elements of the story may be, the frank treatment of its subject and performances elevate the story.
Director Ben Lewin (who also wrote the script) expertly handles the delicate subject of sex and the disabled, never once allowing the characters to fall into the trap of pious condescension or pity. It’s a no nonsense look at life and love from a disabled point of view, and Lewis handles it simply and effectively.
The real credit for the story’s humanity, humor and passion, however, belongs to the actors. Helen Hunt bares all, emotionally and physically in a tender performance that would make her best-known character, “Mad About You’s” Jamie Buchman turn beet red, but it is John Hawkes who walks away with the picture, figuratively, not literally.
Playing a man who sleeps in an iron lung, who lost the ability to move below the neck at an early age, he is extraordinary. Using only his eyes, mouth and voice to express himself he creates a complete portrait of a man struggling past his emotional baggage to break through to another phase in his life. It’s a subtle performance that relies on minute changes in vocal quality and facial expressions to portray complication emotions. It’s also a far cry from his most famous role, the violent hillbilly drug dealer he played in “Winter’s Bone” and one that will garner attention at awards time.
“The Sessions” is a simple film about a difficult subject that eschews sentimentality for heartfelt feelings, and does so with a dose of unexpected humor.
In the 1990s it was hard to overlook Helen Hunt. Her sitcom, Mad About You, ran from 1992 to 1999 and was one of the highest rated shows on television. She was nominated for Best Actress Emmy Awards seven years in row and in 1998 alone she won a Golden Globe, an Oscar and an Emmy Award. Since the millennium, however, she has been taking it easy. Mad About You is in reruns, but now looks dated, more like an ode to Yuppie living than anything else; and since 2000, when she appeared in no less than four movies, her big screen appearances have been limited.
Her latest project, a family dramedy called Then She Found Me, sees her both in front of and behind the camera, starring as April, a thirty-nine-year-old schoolteacher who loses her husband (Matthew Broderick) and adopted mother in rapid succession. In the aftermath of those upheavals two new characters enter her life, the depressed but charming father (Colin Firth) of one of her students and her birth mother (Bette Midler), a flamboyant talk show host.
Then She Found Me is about many things—dealing with death, a ticking biological clock, growing up—but above all it is about trust. April must learn to trust in people and relationships and it is that … on which the entire movie hangs.
Hunt shows a strong hand behind the camera, effectively blending the rom com aspects of the story with human tragedy. There are some very funny moments, but by and large it is a downbeat story buoyed by Hunt’s snappy direction. You don’t work on a sit com for a decade without learning a thing or two about keeping the story chugging along. Occasionally though the television training works against her, as the half-hour comedy format seeps into the dialogue and scene transitions. Stylistically Then She Found Me works best when Hunt (who also co-wrote the screenplay) grounds the situations in reality. The odd misstep here and there only happens when she strays from the realism of the characters and allows the whole thing to drift into mild melodrama.
Despite its lapses, Then She Found Me is a small movie with some nice intimate moments and an interesting unvarnished view of human relationships that you don’t often see in film anymore