55.5% of the film
It’s an edgy role to play, because it can always get a bit too cheesy. But screenwriter and director John Sayles knows better than that so he gives May Alice, his leading character, the gift or irony, wit and just enough feeling to make her likeable. McDonnell is aware that it’s a mature drama, so she always tries to balance the performance between I feel so sorry for her and this woman is a bitch. May Alice is not only paraplegic, but also a bit alcoholic; so there’s a lot of drama bait going on.
Her first scenes are the best: she wakes up in the hospital, doesn’t really remember the accident and she’s confronted with the cruel truth of being paralyzed from waist down. The film depends on what McDonnell can do with this scene; it’s the introduction of the leading character and a tense moment with lots of emotions floating around. And she does a very good job, giving us in one scene both the drama of the character but also its ironic and pessimistic way of being.
A couple of scenes later, though, are a bit shaky in terms of acting. There was a moment with her standing on the physician’s table, at their first session, where her acting didn’t feel as convincing. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I can spot fake acting moments. Yet, I forgave her, because it only happened once during the film. For the rest of it, she was in character.
The desperation of this woman is done well. First, there’s her incapacity of confronting her situation and continuing to live her life. You can feel May-Alice’s frustration. Second, there’s the alcohol problem, an addiction that she develops to forget the state she’s in. It’s not a centre point in the story, but her battle, resignation and final win is beautifully portrayed.
One of the biggest accomplishments is her chemistry with Alfre Woodward’s character, Chantelle. Their relationship is the highlight of the film. They are two different women who in the end become friends: their connection in based on addiction experience, stubbornness and the desire to have someone close. Woodard is excellent, but mostly in the scenes where she’s on her own, so you can’t say she overshadows McDonnell.
Mary McDonnell gives a good, reliable and believable performance. There’s nothing brilliant about it, nothing way too flashy. The performance however has both heart and balls. You feel sorry for her, but you also admire the sarcastic point of view of the character and the actress knows how to give an intelligent performance. She’s a victim, a pain in the ass, a friend, a woman in love and a host; and Mary McDonnell does justice to all of the character’s layers. Again: a very reliable, solid performance; .