Spotlight Performance: Rosario Dawson in Seven Pounds (2008)
Rosario Dawson was literally discovered while sitting on her front porch in New York City, asked to test for a role in a new movie called Kids (1995). She got it, nailed it, wowed everyone, and has since become a huge international film star. She’s done great work in a number of acclaimed films, but there’s one performance that absolutely demands a closer look.
But let’s start with Will Smith. By 2008, Smith was box office gold, leading and starring in movies that set records and made huge profits for studios. Mostly action and blockbuster movies, he had just begun to establish himself as a more dramatic actor with biopics Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness the most commercially successful. His next foray into the genre was 2008’s Seven Pounds, a high concept heart-tugger that divided critics and left audiences equally split.
Spoilers ahead. The film follows a man named Ben (though this is not his real name). He’s played by Smith and is a character suffering from despair over a car accident he caused that killed seven people, including his fiancée. Two years later, he has formulated a plan where he will change the lives of seven strangers, bettering them with his own sacrifices. He plans to donate his organs to needful people, culminating with a selfless final act that he intends will redeem him.
The details of this plan I’ll leave for you to discover, as well as all but one of the seven people he arranges to help. That person is Emily Posa (Dawson), a young attractive woman with a congenital heart condition and rare blood type that leaves her with only weeks to live unless a suitable heart can be found. You can see where this is headed, and Ben, using suspect methods for obtaining information, finds Emily and begins to form a relationship with her, assessing if she is indeed a good person who will value the gift he will bestow.
The movie fell under criticism for its heavy-headed emotional manipulation and decidedly fantastical approach that was uncompromisingly sentimental, but for many fans of the film, this was what propelled it to popularity. The conflicts and solutions, questions and answers, all set up and resolved with near perfect predictability, the film made no effort to conceal its message nor style, and so relied on its sweet performances to make it work. Smith is a gifted actor, able to make great swings from machismo, muscle-ridden heroes to vulnerable targets, mining emotions from his audience with ease, and he does so here as well.
Dawson is his equal, in fact, going one step further and earning what should be high praise for a character that is a deeply personal portrait of a woman facing the end of her life far too soon and with great pain. Interestingly enough, Dawson doesn’t extend this to any contrived lengths, keeping it subdued and honest. We are drawn to her story not because the script demands it, but because she compels us.
One scene in particular sees Emily in bed with Ben. How they got there again is a matter for you watch, but it is understood that these two fragile people are feeling a deep connection. She does not know his true intentions of course, only the false persona he is using to gain entrance into her life. He however, knows all there is to know about her, with Emily confessing much about her condition and the way she is facing one possible fate. If a heart donor is not found within the next few weeks, she will die.
This moment is a tragic one, despite the enormous emotional vulnerability of what their words confess. Ben is feeling something in Emily he believed was long lost, an attachment to a person he thought died with his fiancée. There is an awakening within him that he did not anticipate, and it creates a dilemma as he comes to realize how good and pure Emily truly is. This a person that deserves her life. And he can give it to her.
She however is under the very pragmatic and realistic opinion, provided by her doctors, that there is little chance. She has been accepting of this for some time as her condition weakens her almost daily. It is now just making the most of whatever experiences she can endure. But falling in love was not one of them. When that love grips her as fiercely as it does, she is unprepared, and it creates a longing for life she had come to accept as futile.
In bed, they hold each other close and a gentle game of “what if?” develops where she asks Ben what if, by some miracle, the phone rings and doctors have found a heart? His reply is a question that not only answers her, but profoundly moves her. Watch the scene and notice the shift in Dawson’s performance as she so effectively, and wordlessly understands what he means and how it seems to entirely consume her. It’s a stirring moment.
Dawson makes for a very natural presence on screen here, un-glamorized and weakened yet still very much independent, a fighter that inspires. The character has its duty of course, the screenplay, by design, making her Ben’s savior, allowing him to breach the intolerable despair that has so wholly ruined him. However, Dawson adds a great many layers to Emily, painting her in shades that make her more than what defines her. When she tells Ben about the things in life she misses, such as a simple run, it feels genuine, and we realize that this is her story just as much as his. Because of this, choices made have much greater impact and most importantly, feel earned.
Seven Pounds is film restricted by the very premise it creates. There are many excellent moments that work well for these characters, yet as a whole, could be seen as a self-contained bubble of unbelievable realizations, beginning with Ben’s peculiar pet. However, for many, it is redeemed by its sincerity. Smith is very good as Ben, as is a small turn for Woody Harrelson, who shows up in two key parts. But it is the incomparable Rosario Dawson that grounds this experience and is reason to give this underrated film a second look.