Low-concept films struggle for awards foothold

The upcoming Oscars don’t have a single best-picture frontrunner or even a pair of ‘em, which is good. No one wants to see this horse race end four months before the finish line.

What awards season does have, though, is a clique, which isn’t good at all.

Picture a student cafeteria like the one in the recently released “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” Certain films have dibs on the center of the lunchroom and get to stay there unless something horrible knocks them out of favor, while others, no matter how much they have to offer, nurse their peanut butter and jelly on the outskirts, wondering if they’ll ever be hip enough to be noticed.

It might well be called the Wallflower Syndrome, of which “Perks” is a prime example. The film isn’t everyone’s nirvana, but from the chatter going around, I’m not alone in thinking “Perks” a terrific movie. Many’s the time I’ve wished that a film about grownups had the sincerity and nuance of Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of his young-adult novel.

Yet as an Oscar contender, “Perks” is barely percolating. Not because of quality — while ultimately it might not be deserving, too many people like it to summarily scrap it in October — but because it’s not among the films that were tapped back in the heat of summer as contenders. Sight unseen, mind you.

And that’s the part that’s vexing, that some pics get a head start and others a hurdle based on little more than their loglines. This is true even though movies don’t need to please everyone to reach the Dolby Theater in February. We know that a small cadre of passionate fans can push a movie to an Oscar nom. We saw this happen as recently as last year with “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” basically the last contending film to be screened in 2011 and the one with the smallest window to build awards support. “Extremely Loud” had more detractors than I can count, scored a 46 on Metacritic’s 100-point scale … and strolled right into the Oscar nominations.

Why? Well, it was filled with pedigree: Stephen Daldry, Eric Roth, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis. It was filled with import: 9/11 and its aftermath. And whatever its faults, it played bold.

In other words, “Extremely Loud” was the opposite of a wallflower. Conversely, just like its main character, “Perks” needs to bust a wall of preconceived notions regarding its value just to be seen. It not only needs to find friends, it needs to find the right friends — the kind of friends who won’t be ignored, who will convince others that a vote for this film isn’t a wasted vote.

A year ago, “Beginners” was in the thick of the awards conversation — but only for supporting actor Christopher Plummer. That Plummer won the award proves that plenty of people saw the movie. In the process, Plummer’s award became the movie’s raison d’etre, ignoring the fact that Ewan McGregor delivered an absolutely shining performance in the lead role, that Mike Mills’ screenplay was top-notch and that the film itself was a gem that easily deserved placement among the picture nominees.

When you look at the pattern of films that are stuck in the outer circle of the Oscar lunchroom, you realize something. If the film plays in a low key, it’s practically destined to succumb to the Wallflower Syndrome, no matter how brilliant.

The Yaron Zilberman film “A Late Quartet” — and if you haven’t heard of Yaron Zilberman, well, join the club for which I recently served as president — is one of the finest movies in years. In 105 minutes, “A Late Quartet” tackles marriage, ambition, parenthood, art, mortality, lust, perfectionism and more with a dexterity and sensitivity you’ll rarely see. It does so with a cast that includes past Oscar party-members Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and a particularly wonderful Christopher Walken.

Does this film, scheduled for a November release, have a prayer in the Oscars? Maybe. But it faces the proverbial “uphill battle,” and after a while, you start to tire of seeing great films having an uphill battle.

Among the themes of “Perks” was that everyone deserves the chance to prove themselves, even the kids who dress funny, act offbeat or struggled just to make it to school. There’s something to be said for that, even in awards season.

Jon Weisman blogs about awards season at variety.com/thevote.

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