May-Alice Culhane (Mary McDonnell) is a daytime soap opera star who is struck by a taxi in New York and wakes up in a hospital paralyzed from the waist down. Upset and bitter, and unable to continue acting, which she says is the only thing she was ever good at, she returns to her Louisiana bayou family home to begin the rest of her life in isolation.

An employment agency sends out a string of helpers. Some are better than others, but all are quickly defeated by May-Alice’s deep bitterness and negativity and her incipient alcoholism. Then comes Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), who needs the job so badly, as part of digging herself out from a cocaine addiction, that her determination makes her a match for May-Alice.

It is decidedly bumpy going, but Chantelle persists and May-Alice finally strops drinking and begins to make some progress in physical therapy. She takes up black-and-white photography, developing her own prints from her wheelchair, and she gratefully receives the gentlemanly attentions of her high school idol Rennie, played by David Strathairn. (The film takes its title from a practice that locals believe can make love-wishes come true.)


May-Alice will never walk again or experience sexual pleasure, but this film ends on an upswing for her as she outlives her bitterness and begins trying to make the best of things. The film clearly supports the idea that the passage of time can be a crucial part of a patient’s adjustment to disability, and it would make a fine beginning to a discussion of resistance to recovery.

Passion Fish would be interesting considered alongside Whose Life Is It Anyway? (also part of this database), in which the main character is a sculptor suddenly paralyzed below the neck who maintains to the end a spirited defense of his right to judge his life as NOT worth living.


Screenplay and editing also by John Sayles. Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Actress.

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