Movie Review: The Sessions
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
If John Hawkes loses out on an Oscar to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix or Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe the Academy can at least give the actor’s eyes an honorable mention.
Long-time character actor and former Austinite Hawkes, who has risen to prominence over the past few years thanks to edgy performances in “Winter’s Bone” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” uses his eyes to express colors from the entire spectrum of emotion as Mark O’Brien in “The Sessions.”
He has little choice. Confined to living inside an iron lung except for the few hours he spends each day on a motorized gurney, the man who survived a bout of polio at the age of 6 is effectively paralyzed from the shoulders down.
But his imagination and curiosity about life persist. In his eyes you see despair, hope, longing, excitement and mischief.
His disability does not keep Mark from an active life. Typing with the help of a stick he controls with his mouth, he works as a journalist. “The Sessions” is loosely based on the life of O’Brien, a Bay Area journalist and poet who wrote a 1990 article entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”
After 38 years as a virgin, Mark decides he wants to experience physical intimacy. But after a failed romantic dalliance with his pretty assistant, Amanda (Annika Marks), the witty and charming writer finds a possible solution in the form of a sex surrogate named Cheryl (Helen Hunt).
A lifelong Catholic, Mark turns to his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy) for counsel. Though hesitant about giving his parishioner a green light to sin — sex is, after all, meant to be confined to marriage — a sympathetic and good humored Father Brendan gives Mark a hall pass.
Aided by new assistant Vera (a gorgeous and slightly buttoned-up Moon Bloodgood), Mark decides to confront his fear and submit himself to one of the most difficult tasks of what has not been an easy life.
Cheryl tells Mark that their time will be limited to six sessions, as to mitigate the possibility of forming emotional bonds. Though Hunt appears nude often in the film, there is nothing terribly sexy about the couple’s encounters. At least not physically.
But the two do use their physical contact to explore a deep sense of emotional intimacy. Unlike your typical teen virginity-loss flick, there is something compelling and touching about seeing a grown man access a part of his being he has long since discarded.
Cheryl takes great care not to hurt Mark, whose limp limbs and warped spine make him physically delicate, but she willfully guides him to a place of trust and confidence, eventually getting her patient to an acceptance of his own beauty and power.
Mark experiences false starts, confronts intimidating situations and bravely challenges his own perception of what is possible with a dry and endearing sense of humor. Hawkes finds a perfect cadence that balances doubt with confidence. His pinched, nasally head-voice strains at its edges, filled as it is with such warmth and a sense of discovery wobbly with excitement.
Hunt blends sympathy with a serious desire to assist in a brave performance, but she feels a bit measured and removed at times. And her on-again, off-again Boston accent doesn’t help.
The visual style of the film has about as much warmth and ambiance as a network drama from the ’80s — an era depicted with solid, subtle costume and set design — but writer-director Ben Lewin, also a polio survivor, lends the script an abundance of heart and humor, the two most important necessities in navigating life regardless of your physical condition.
But “The Sessions” belongs completely to Hawkes, who disappears into the role of Mark O’Brien, delivering a stunning performance that illuminates what it means to be a whole person.