Rating: 4 stars out of 5
‘The Sessions’ arrived on the big stage at Sundance Film Festival last year and became the indie darling of the festival. The movie is about the real story of Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes), a poet who has been paralysed from the neck down since childhood due to polio. He's lived with the help of an iron lung for most of his life. At age 38 and fearing that his life is ending, he decides to hire a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity.
It's a quirky premise for sure but thankfully, the movie doesn't fall to the trappings of becoming an overly gimmicky movie. This is very much due to writer/director Ben Lewin, himself a polio survivor, and his delicate touch in handling the material. There is an ease and candid attitude towards sexuality that is refreshingly honest and even somewhat unusual.
For a movie about a debilitating condition, ‘The Sessions’ is surprisingly light hearted and even funny for most of it. A movie like this could have easily fallen into the age old tricks of over sentiment and emotion but Lewin bravely keeps the focus on the characters and the workings of their inner lives: their wants, their desires and their fears.
Lewin's touch is complemented by a pair of titanic acting performances. Due to the limitations of this role, Hawkes is pretty much limited to using his face to express everything and anything. And express it he does! Hawkes makes use of every tool available to him, from his voice to a wry infusion of wit, intelligence and a childlike innocence in his characterisation in order to emote himself to the other actors. It's an amazing performance that's also extremely likable, charming and plays off perfectly with the rest of the cast. It's a performance that's designed to contrast the frail weak physical with the fullness of O'Brien's personality and acumen. It'll definitely come as a surprise that Hawkes was snubbed for the Oscar for Best Actor once you've seen the movie.
‘The Sessions’ trailer
On the other side of the acting fence, Helen Hunt puts in an equally eye catching performance, albeit one that was nominated by the Academy. As the sex therapist, Hunt's performance is equally as bold physically; her frequent bouts of nudity often conveying varying forms of glamour, sensuality and transparency at the same time. It's a very mature and mightily composed performance and overall, a very dynamic performance from the two leads that never brushes over the subtleties that matter as well.
The result is a movie that's irresistibly sweet, tender and delightful. There are of course flaws that may be apparent to the more attentive; there are no substantial stakes at place here, only a relatively uncomplicated plot at play – not that there's anything wrong with that.
William H. Macy's priest character spouts some pretty lame lines throughout the entire movie, almost like he's been browsing the Hallmark aisle way too much but even that's funny and endearing in a dorky way. Besides the magnetic performances of the two leads, the film is also an extremely empowering experience.
Watching Hawkes play O'Brien living his life so full of vigour and daring to love regardless of religious or physical constraints is an inspiring experience beyond belief.
By way of its humour and good natured sincere disposition, ‘The Sessions’ allows its message of living life to the fullest to be addressed to the audience in a way that's not even close to being heavy handed. A beautiful film all around, just like the words of the poet they made a film about.