Hawkes, Hunt Deliver In "The Sessions"

It’s all too easy to take the most common cinematic techniques for granted. Over the shoulder shots. Linear storylines. Narrative clichés. Sex for the purpose of titillation. “The Sessions” attacks all of these expectations head-on. Its main character is resigned to a gurney (and an iron lung) for the duration of the picture, making a largely conversational piece instantly disorienting. We’re so conditioned in the way people should be framed onscreen, that when they’re not (either because the filmmakers don’t know how to shoot a movie or, in this case, because the story demands it), we’re immediately caught off guard. Accordingly, the way “The Sessions” handles its very R-rated sexual material is completely… unsexy. It’s about as provocative as a sex-ed film. But none of these qualities take away from its ultimate charm and the unusual but fulfilling route it takes to its conclusion. In fact, what’s so abnormal about the film is the reason it (mostly) succeeds.

The opening credits are as informative as anything in the picture. The aforementioned lead, Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), contracted polio at a young age and became virtually paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his condition, he graduated from college and went on to become a renowned journalist and poet. The movie is based on a true story, and O’Brien’s real-life article, “On Seeing A Sex Surrogate,” is the basis of the narrative here. Mark achieved a lot in his first 38 years of life, but romantic relationships escaped him. Despite being as alert and intelligent as anybody, his extreme physical limitations heightened his introversion to an alarming degree. 20 minutes into the film, an “I love you, but not in that way” response from one of his caretakers makes up his mind – he’s too old to be a virgin. With the encouragement of a freethinking priest (a wonderfully utilized William H. Macy), he begins the process of seeking out a “sex surrogate” – a bona fide profession (legal in many states). Who knew?

Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, a kindly but no-nonsense New Englander self-ascribed as “definitely not a prostitute.” As a married, licensed professional tasked with helping Mark overcome his intimacy issues, the character is something of a puzzle. We have no idea where the narrative’s going, nor do we know where we want it to go. Despite Hunt’s spotty accent, she provides the feral temperament that the role requires. The fact that Hunt disappeared from the limelight over the past decade allows us to reacquaint ourselves with her as an actress, making Cheryl the right mix of familiar and confounding. And “familiar” is definitely the right term for someone performing such frank sexual material. It’s an unexpected turn for the former TV and box office heavyweight, but she strikes the right tone in scene after scene – a tone that’s necessary to balance that of the lead.

Hawkes’ performance is brave in several ways. The physicality of playing a crippled man is obviously daunting. Most actors would be rightfully petrified of taking such a flying leap into something so unfamiliar (and potentially insensitive), yet Hawkes nails it. But his physical transformation, while impressive, isn’t as memorable or bold as how he portrays the man himself. He paints O’Brien likely as the person he was – smart and affable, but occasionally prickly and abrasive. It would’ve been easy to a play him as a saint – and to be sure, Mark O’Brien as written had saintly qualities. But acting out his irritability and discordant “Roaring 20s” accent makes him all the more human. He’s an uncommonly bitter protagonist, but doesn’t he have every right to be? Equal credit goes to writer/director Ben Lewin for promoting such a textured portrayal of an inherently sympathetic character.

Just when you think the story is going to stick to sex (which would have been disappointingly one-dimensional), it develops an emotional backbone that surges toward cliché but pulls back so as not to become saccharine. And the not-quite-linear nature of the movie (Hawkes narrates most scenes, often through his character’s own writings) adds a level of idiosyncrasy that meshes well with O’Brien’s offbeat sense of humor. Unfortunately, some ancillary characters are seemingly present only to fill out the running time and the tonal shifts are a bit jarring. Moreover, the intersection of the main characters’ lives never comes into focus as Hunt is introduced too far into the film to have as big of an impact as Hawkes. But, “The Sessions” is a skillfully layered look at the similarities and differences between people of all walks of life. And it features one of the most haunting conclusions – particularly its last few images – of 2012.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: October 19, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Ben Lewin
Screenwriter: Ben Lewin
Starring: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexuality including graphic nudity and frank dialogue)