Mark O’Brien was a prolific poet and journalist. A long-time editor of Pacific News Service and an NPR contributor, O’Brien published essays, book reviews and news stories for The San Francisco Chronicle, The Examiner and other respected news sources. All this makes for a pretty impressive résumé, especially when you consider the bulk of his work was typed from an iron lung with a specially designed mouth stick. Mark contracted polio at age 6, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
The Sessions, starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, focuses primarily on one specific period of his life, candidly documented in a 1990 article he wrote titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Hawkes turns in a remarkable performance as O’Brien, who, with the reluctant go-ahead of his sounding board/priest (William H. Macy), decides to enlist the help of a surrogate (Hunt) to assist him in losing his virginity. Six sessions are scheduled, designed to gradually ease him into the act of intercourse. The film is decidedly frank in its depiction of said courses, proving a refreshing change of pace in this Hollywood age of fearing all things sexual.
Hawkes’s performance is astounding. This will come as no surprise to those of you familiar with his stellar work in such movies as Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, but the emotions he’s able to convey here with his face alone only further cement his status as a master of the art. Humble and soft-spoken while simultaneously desperate for human connection, it’s no wonder O’Brien makes a lasting impression on seemingly everyone who crosses his path. Despite his charms, though, Hunt as Cheryl is quick to lay down some ground rules. In addition to the arbitrary six-session limit, she pointedly states her lack of interest in anything long-term and openly discusses her marriage and children. Whether or not her directness proves effective, she at least can’t be accused of leading him on.
Helen Hunt, arguably the centerpiece of the film, bares it all both literally and figuratively. Cheryl is shown to be equally stern and compassionate, conscious of the vulnerability her profession is sure to provoke while wisely taking the necessary steps to keep herself at a distance. She sympathizes with Mark’s need for a physical connection, but is also all too aware of his want for an emotional one. It’s a fine line and one in constant danger of being blurred. That’s a hell of a lot of responsibility.
Given the weighty subject matter, it’s something of a miracle that The Sessions manages to establish and maintain a keen sense of humor throughout. It could have easily become bogged down with O’Brien’s plight and lovelorn pursuit of happiness, but mostly dodges the trappings of triteness and melodrama. Macy especially brings a shaggy charm to his role as Father Brendan, and the scenes he and Hawkes share are some of the film’s best. That said, there are a few meandering subplots involving O’Brien’s various caretakers and Cheryl’s home life that don’t exactly pack the intended punches. A scene late in the film in which Mark is left to his own devices when a power outage threatens his livelihood feels especially pat and contrived. All minor missteps, though, in an otherwise excellent feature.
The direction by Ben Lewin is impressively assured. He allows for a lot of quiet moments, letting expressions alone do much of the heavy lifting. There is quite a bit of Oscar buzz surrounding The Sessions, and I’d argue Lewin deserves a nod here. He trusts his actors and clearly knows how to pick ‘em. I for one am looking forward to what he has to offer next.
Final Grade: A-