[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
Biopics may have the strongest track record in currying Academy favor, but tales of overcoming physical obstacles aren't far behind, and if the right film can merge both elements, all the better. Among this year's surefire awards candidates is The Sessions, which covers the biographical and physical-hurdle bases, while boasting some tastefully risqué quirk to boot. Most would agree that the dramedy has been an Oscar player since its debut at Sundance, where audiences first bore witness to its cocktail of baity ingredients. Recounting the story of polio survivor Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), whose personable nature assuages any characters (or viewers) unnerved by his disability (he's immobile, yet not paralyzed, from the neck down), The Sessions offers a cheer-worthy underdog who, in a most relatable way, finally wants to get laid. That the movie uses sex as a human right of passage and not an incessant belly-laugh source is what continually saves it from puerile potholes. Like August's Hope Springs, it's a movie that takes a decidedly adult approach to sexuality, and any situational humor that results is largely due to the good old, natural discomfort of intimate moments. It's also an actors' showcase, a work of modest origins, and the breakout effort of a man (writer/director Ben Lewin) who lives with the same affliction as his protagonist. Thanks to all of this, The Sessions joins Beasts of the Southern Wild as one of few 2012 indies with serious Oscar traction, and secures an outside shot at a Best Picture nomination.
Even with Daniel Day-Lewis maintaining the insta-buzz surrounding his turn in Lincoln, some pundits are calling Hawkes the current Best Actor frontrunner, so humane and sympathetic is his performance in this film. A Hawkes win seems unlikely, but the probable nomination will be a big validation for the veteran character actor, who follows his recent Supporting Actor nod for Winter's Bone with the first major leading role of his career. There's already ample praise for Hawkes's thespian triumph, which sees him craft a full character without moving a single limb. Folks in the industry will also know that the actor endured physical turmoil while tackling the part, sustaining minor injuries after altering his spine to recreate O'Brien's posture. Like The Sessions itself, Hawkes sure has his ducks in a row, playing a real-life, disabled hero while facing actorly challenges and suffering for his art. He's also funny and poignant. In short, he's a lock.
Ditto Helen Hunt, whose turn as O'Brien's sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene, made her the year's first bona fide Supporting Actress hopeful the moment this film hit theaters. Even more impactful than Hawkes, Hunt delivers a performance worth cherishing, and in the end, it has precious little to do with her ample full-frontal nudity, which will have voters penciling her in for classic, and somewhat belittling, reasons of bravery. Hunt indeed showed pluck by signing on for so much skin-baring, but more important is what the choice proves about her taste in projects, as nothing in The Sessions' sex scenes comes anywhere near vulgarity. And Hunt truly connects with viewers as a commanding, yet calming, coach, easing audiences into awkward moments right along with O'Brien. She's the pilot of the film's communal experience, and that she steers it so well reveals great empathy on the actress's part. It's the best work Hunt's done since As Good As It Gets, which netted her a Best Actress trophy in 1997. Combined with the whole bravery draw, it'll put her in the running again.
Though some outlets are dubbing him a dark horse, the ambitious Lewin doesn't really have a prayer in the Best Director race, especially when heavyweights like Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) will be fighting it out for the category's unclaimed slot(s). A better bet for the filmmaker is recognition for his Adapted Screenplay, which he crafted from O'Brien's writings and his own similar experiences. The movie's script is surely its weakest attribute, burdened by the troubling comic device of parallel sessions with William H. Macy's priest, but there's enough raw honesty present to overcome the missteps. It uses familiar avenues to present something new, and voters are sure respond to the story behind the story, which involves a freshly prominent talent whose creative abilities trump other limitations, and who pays homage to a kindred spirit.
Surest bets: Best Actor, John Hawkes; Best Supporting Actress, Helen Hunt; Best Original Screenplay, Ben Lewin.
Possibilities: Best Picture.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: None.