Review: 'The Sessions'
BY MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer
Friday, November 16, 2012
11/16/12 at 4:43 AM
I realize that some will hear about "The Sessions" - based on the true story of a poet living in an iron lung, determined to lose his virginity to the point of hiring a sex surrogate - and believe that it sounds odd. Maybe even offensive.
"The Sessions" is instead one of the most unexpectedly moving, humorous and life-affirming films in some time, with a gentle storytelling style that is as poetic as the man who is depicted. It also features two of this year's most-likely-to-be-nominated performances.
Yes, it is also frankly sexual, but in as loving a manner as you can imagine for a story about human connections.
John Hawkes, Oscar-nominated for his mean meth addict in "Winter's Bone" and in this film portraying one of the sweetest guys you could meet, plays Mark O'Brien. Mark is a man who contracted polio at age 6 and found that though he was not paralyzed, his muscles simply wouldn't work right anymore. But his mind remained as sharp as a tack.
That meant living inside an iron lung to help him breathe, with a portable respirator offering him a couple of hours break to go outside, where he could be wheeled around on a gurney.
For Hawkes, this meant creating a full-bodied performance without the use of his body, only able to move his head. That he conveys his character's fears, joys, desires and pain with his face alone is an astounding accomplishment.
Throughout "The Sessions," Hawkes has our hearts breaking and our souls soaring by alternate turns. He makes us understand why Mark, who knows that some of life's opportunities are closed off to him, wishes to learn if he can accomplish a life goal that is a perfectly natural act: achieving physical intimacy with another person.
The story is set in Berkeley, California, in 1988, where Mark graduated from college and where he lives and writes articles (his mouth holds an implement that he uses to type with) and where caregivers attend to his needs in his home.
One of those needs is special, Mark tells his priest, who is played by William H. Macy with a humanity and a humor consistent with the tone of the film. Mark, a witty man who easily charms women in conversations, would like to do more with a woman than talk.
"I'm probably getting close to my use-by date," Mark tells the priest, in one of many comments in which he reveals how self-conscious he can be, but even more so how self-deprecating as a defense mechanism.
Macy is a consoling soul, taking he and Mark's Catholic faith seriously in reconciling this new ambition, and Helen Hunt reminds of her "As Good as It Gets" achievement as Cheryl, a special kind of sex therapist with a heart of gold.
Her surrogate sessions with Mark are obviously the scenes in which the film's extensive nudity comes in, and Hunt is certainly comfortable with her body at age 49.
Her tender-but-tough portrayal of a professional attempting to help a client while also keeping a professional distance is both complex and compassionate. Wow, where has this talented actress been for so many years?
Such a task is easier said than done when so many emotions are involved - from nervous excitement to naivete, from Mark's religious beliefs to eroticism - and when an experience changes the lives of all involved in this beautifully conceived film.
Longtime TV and movie writer/director Ben Lewin has crafted an unforgettable film full of sex and sentimentality. The sex can be clinical but with just the right amount of true affection, and the sentimental moments are of the best variety: those that are honestly earned and absolutely lovely.
"The Sessions" is the little movie sneaking into theaters this weekend amid the "Twilight" finale and Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," and it's the one that discriminating adult audiences should not miss.
Tell your friends that it's the movie about sex, but told with the intimacy and understanding of a poet.
Cast: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William
H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam
Theater: AMC Southroads 20
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Rated: R (strong sexuality including
graphic nudity and frank dialogue)
Quality: (on a scale of zero to
Original Print Headline: Film about sex has sweet heart of poet
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
In "The Sessions," Mark (John Hawkes) spends most of his life living in an iron lung, but he seeks to achieve personal intimacy with sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy